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'We Want Our Kids In School': Displeased Parents Protest Closure Of Bergen County District

Parents protest the sudden closure of the Westwood Regional School District Oct. 19.
Parents protest the sudden closure of the Westwood Regional School District Oct. 19. Photo Credit: COURTESY Anthony Greco

The shutdown of an entire Bergen County school district due to COVID-19 has some parents protesting, many seeking answers and nearly three dozen calling for the superintendent's removal.

The Westwood Regional School District community -- servicing Westwood and Washington Township -- was made aware of three, related COVID-19 cases in the middle, high school and central office on Oct. 14. 

The individuals were instructed to quarantine, as were close contacts. In-person learning continued as usual for all others. That is, until Sunday, Oct. 18, when Superintendent Dr. Ray Gonzalez emailed parents saying schools would be closed for two weeks, effective immediately.

The letter didn't mention any new cases. It was fairly vague, and said only that the decision was made following an "emergency meeting" with the Northwest Bergen Regional Health Consortium.

Many parents were left with more questions than answers. Among them Anthony Greco, who organized a protest at Westwood Regional High School for 3 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19.

"Have there been any other cases than the three that we know about?" he said on a call with Daily Voice. "Is there a rampant spread? If those three cases last Tuesday were quarantined, why almost a week later are we in shutdown mode? Why did the whole system shut down and not just the schools affected?"

On Monday, Gonzalez said that three additional cases had been confirmed: Two were staff members in the middle school and central office, and one was a district employee. The additional cases bring the district total to six.

Recommendations released by the NJ Health Department last summer (see page 15) say the only times when school should close for 14 days are when there is a significant community outbreak, or when two or more cases are identified within 14 days across multiple classrooms, and a clear connection can't be easily identified.

"While I am truly sorry for the inconvenience this situation presents to many of you," said Gonzalez in the Oct. 19 update, "I can assure you that the public health and safety of our students and staff remain at the forefront of our decision-making."

Gonzalez's Sunday evening email took parents by surprise, and left them with little time to figure out how to balance their own jobs with their children's remote learning.

"A lot of us parents were upset that we were not given a warning," said ToniAnn Migliore.  "We wanted more of a reason, it was too vague and we want to know things as they are happening."

Kristen Pedersen says this isn't the first she's been disappointed by a decision made by Gonzalez. The mom of two launched a petition calling for his removal, which had 50 signatures as of Oct. 20 -- a day after its launch.

"There's been a lot of uneasiness and unrest with the school district in the last year -- a general sense of unhappiness," said Pedersen. "Specifically with the superintendent and his inability to lead."

Over the past several years, Pedersen has become increasingly concerned with Gonzalez's ability to lead the district. She cited an overall lack of transparency and accountability. 

"He makes decisions with no input from the Board of Education or community," Pedersen said. "I've sat in a huge amount of Board meetings every month. He hears how the community is unhappy with aspects of the district. It's the same things every month -- and nothing seems to improve because he doesn't seem to take the feedback into consideration."

Pedersen pointed to an active lawsuit filed against the district, filed by a former aide who was terminated following a playdate mixup while babysitting one of Pedersen's daughters. She emphasized the incident served as another major concern for Gonzalez's leadership capabilities.

Sunday's letter, Pedersen says, was the tipping point for her.

"My petition is related to the overall decisions that [Gonzalez] makes to operate the district -- and the closure is a great example," Pedersen said. "There is no data provided to the community to support any of the decisions he makes. He seems to be a one man show all the time and answers to nobody.

"The petition is to support the removal of [Gonzalez] from the district so we can hopefully go in a direction where we're elevating the talent of the leadership within our district."

Greco says this is the first time he'd experienced dissatisfaction with Gonzalez.

"All I want are answers," he said. "We were not given any info and again, we want our kids in school."

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