Bloomfield BOE candidates discuss pandemic, diversity

Bloomfield Board of Education candidates participate in a debate hosted by the Bloomfield Information Project on Oct. 6.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — There are three open seats on the ballot for the Bloomfield Board of Education, and five of the six candidates running debated one another virtually on Oct. 6 in an event hosted by the Bloomfield Information Project. Incumbents Ellen Rogers, Thomas Heaney and Jessica Salinas are running against challengers Satenik Margaryan, Kasey Dudley and Nadeisha Greene. Rogers is running for a third term on the BOE; Heaney and Salinas are running for second terms. Salinas was unable to be at the debate.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has kept the doors to the Bloomfield School District’s buildings closed since March, was a topic of conversation for the candidates. Asked how to prioritize safety in the district, Heaney said the district should coordinate with the local health department, state health officials and the state department of education.

“Everyone has to work together to realize what is safe and what is not safe,” he said during the event. “We’ve flattened the curve as far as COVID is concerned, but the amount of work it takes to get through it might be more than we can handle with a full load of students in school all day every day. The safety of the students and teachers is paramount, and if that means that we are only going to be going to hybrid learning in the next couple of months until we get a handle on the virus, that’s more important in my eyes than trying to rush everyone back to school prematurely.”

Margaryan suggested looking at what’s happening in other countries and other U.S. cities for examples of how to move forward with safety guidelines.

“I feel like the district is handling virtual education pretty well, considering that all the students who needed a computer received a computer, everyone has a Wi-Fi connection if they needed one,” she said. “I know that collaborating across different communities will help us achieve the goal of a safe return to our schools, which we all really want to do.”

Greene said staff and students shouldn’t return to the school buildings before it is a guarantee that everyone will be safe.

“I know that with this virus, things are constantly changing,” she said. “So making sure that the district is keeping up with what is happening and prioritizing the safety of everyone before going back into the buildings. I do believe children still need to have high rigor while online as well.”

Rogers, as a current member of the BOE, has participated in building the district’s reopening plan and said during the event that much of the planning was driven by data.

“We also try to remain fiscally responsible, so that we can continue with the highest level of education even amidst the pandemic,” she said. “It will not be an easy decision, but I do know we are prepared in the way of PPE, hand sanitizers, temperature checks, vent filters and HVAC systems.”

Dudley agreed with the other candidates that the school buildings should not be opened until the district can determine it is safe, and also complimented how teachers are handling the all-virtual model currently.

“Speaking from a parent perspective, it’s hard,” she said. “I thought it was hard being in the classroom, but accommodating 25 children on a Zoom meeting all day is even more challenging.”

In her answer, Dudley pointed out that if students can learn in person soon, the district should consider changing behavior that can contribute to spreading the virus.

“We want to make sure that we’re maintaining a healthy environment,” Dudley said. “How do we prepare if a child does get sick? What are the things to prepare for if and when we do go back? We should also learn from what did not work. If we prepare a plan that can be adjusted if necessary, I think that’s one of the best approaches that we can start with.”

The debate questions were mined from the public, and many of them were about diversifying the district staff. Greene said that while the initiative is in the district’s five-year plan, she would like to see more progress more quickly.

“The data shows that 73 percent of the district’s students are students of color, while 87 percent of the professional teaching staff is white,” she said. “There’s a huge disparity there. The district has to think about intentional recruiting and hiring efforts.”

Aside from teacher recruiting, Greene said the district should focus on retention.

“Retention of teachers of color must be developed, not only to welcome teachers, but also to make them feel welcome within the community and so we can keep the highly qualified teachers there,” she said.

Rogers agreed with much of Greene’s position, and added that the newly implemented teacher’s contract has more competitive salaries.

“We would lose candidates of color to other towns within Essex County, because their starting salary was higher,” she said. “That was a big problem. Something that I’ve been pushing for is some type of mentoring program. We could have mentors in place who are people of color already on the staff.”

In her answer, Dudley said in the 12 years she has lived in Bloomfield, she has not seen the ratio of students of color to teachers of color change.

“That is an issue that I think should definitely be addressed, but not at the expense of education,” Dudley said. “It’s not just about color. We want to ensure that we are hiring and reviewing quality teachers, so that there is equity amongst the district. Diversity among students directly impacts their performance. Studies have shown that students work better in diverse environments.”

Heaney said both he and Salinas were on the BOE committee that wrote the strategic plan.

“After being on the board for a year, we saw what our strategic plan was, we saw that we would need a new one, and we accelerated working on a new one,” he said. “It has input from all the stakeholders, which includes not just the staff but the community as well. I do agree, we need more people of color, not just teaching our students, but mentoring our students and coaching our students and among our administrative ranks.”

Margaryan spoke about the difference between equality and equity.

“While equality means treating every student the same, equity means making sure every student has the support they need to be successful,” she said. “We want to make sure that students in special education, English language learners and other students with diverse educational needs have all the support they need. One of the things that we can do is provide universal preschool. This is where the differences start.”

Margaryan said that students who enter kindergarten having gone to preschool do better in school than those who did not.

“We know that preschool is extremely expensive,” she said. “We need to make sure we allow everyone the same opportunity in our district. We have a half-day preschool right now, but we want to make sure it’s a full-day preschool and that, if it’s not free, it’s affordable.”

The debate is available to replay at The election is on Nov. 3; Bloomfield voters should have already received their mail-in ballots.