US Senator Robert Menendez joined with Congressman Bill Pascrell (CD9), Garfield Mayor Richard Rigoglioso, American Federation of Teachers New Jersey President Donna Chiera, Superintendent of Schools Anna Sciacca, and teachers from the school district to highlight the benefits derived from federal funding for the schools. After a short tour of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, the officials spoke in the school’s computer science room to discuss how $3 billion from the American Rescue Plan, CARES Act, and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) has been applied.
The primary aim of these funds is to improve and aid beleaguered schools, faculty, staff, students, and administrations in dealing with the myriad challenges which stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic, particularly with respect to students’ academic, social, and mental health needs, all of which have been severely impacted over the last two years.
“Seeing the children in the classroom again,” Senator Menendez said, “one can’t help but feel inspired by the stories that they shared with me: tales of perseverance and grit. You really get the sense of just how hard COVID was on our teachers, students, and families, having to adapt to online learning, transitioning to hybrid systems, having to overcome all kinds of challenges in order to deliver high quality instruction to our kids. I’m just blown away by the resilience and the fortitude that our school communities have shown… As we come together to talk about securing federal funds to support our schools, and help them get back on their feet and thrive, today is a proud moment. We get to see firsthand how these federal dollars are making a real, meaningful difference in the classroom.”
The Garfield school district received about $13 million to be used for improvements, renovation, and additional support.
The senator described a number of projects that the money will be used for, not the least of which, HVAC upgrades, a point which resonated with everyone in the room that was, in fact, uncomfortably hot during the press conference.
“These federal funds are an example of our primary duty as elected leaders,” Menendez said, “marshaling the resources of our federal government to support every student, every teacher, and all the families who call New Jersey home. We shouldn’t be making the already hard jobs harder, we shouldn’t be contributing to the stress of a new school year, we should be making things easier, opening doors and opportunities, so that we can deliver on the promise of a high quality education. That is the birthright, I believe, of every child in America and certainly one of the things that we cherish here in New Jersey as a state.”
Congressman Pascrell said that he had been in Garfield three times over the weekend, and that he spoke with civil engineers in New Jersey and New York who are looking for help with infrastructure.
“I’m so happy that Garfield has spent money and efforts to ensure a great STEM program. STEM is our future,” Pascrell said. “We’re getting the word out there that science is not to be shunned.” Pascrell said that engineers told him they need people to do the infrastructure work ahead and that the opportunity laying ahead should not be missed. He said that the work opportunities would present themselves as good paying jobs and the CARES Act brought valuable school resources to the fore. “For Garfield, $963,000 is nothing to sneeze at. The CARES Act is doing the job. The Garfield public school district received $3,000,734 in other funding as well, Coronavirus relief that went to the school.”
Pascrell praised Menendez’s efforts triumphing in a perfectly divided Senate. “Remember, he is in a situation where it is a 50/50 vote. At least we have 5 as an edge in the House, we’re not too much better in terms of pluralities.”
Pascrell thanked the administration, faculty, and staff, for all their hard work during the pandemic. He also emphasized that the full scope of COVID has yet to be understood. “Recovery for COVID has been tough. We do not know the consequences of it. I am telling you now. We’re just learning. We lost over 34,600 New Jerseyans to COVID. The economy cratered and the schools were closed. The public has entrusted the Congress and President to help us to recover, and we’re on the way to recovery.”
The congressman presented an optimistic assessment of the current situation, citing falling gas prices, falling unemployment, and more. “President Biden has added, since he’s been the president, ten million jobs. Mostly everybody who lost their job during the pandemic is back to work. That’s phenomenal. You can’t keep the US down, you just can’t. The Congress delivered some truly historic laws just in a very short period of time.”
Pascrell cited the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. “The 9th Congressional District received $341 million and Garfield over $9 million itself. This aid kept our communities afloat, expanded vaccines, supported small businesses and reinvigorated our public spaces. Congress then enacted an additional $2.5 trillion pandemic aid and $60 billion is given to the schools across America. Phenomenal! Some good comes out of the bad all the time. We calibrated how we handle health in America. That’s what we’re doing right now.”
The money, Pascrell said, has been going to good use. “I don’t blow smoke as you know. I’m very confident that this school district is going to be one of the best in the state, I’m putting money on it,” the congressman added.
With new iPads, smart boards, and 3D printers in the schools, Pascrell said that the best was yet to come for the Garfield district.
When Chiera approached the podium to speak, she noted that she observed the body language of all those in attendance, reacting to the heat in the room. “Everyone in this room is dying because there’s no air conditioning. But I need to remind you that there are hundreds of thousands of education staff throughout this state, and throughout the country, that are not only in this room for an hour press conference, but are in these classrooms all day with twenty or thirty very busy students. The money that we received from the federal government will help. It’s beginning to relieve that type of learning obstacle… if the learning conditions aren’t optimal, education is not optimal.”
Chiera said that while the money that was received was helpful, it needs to be used intelligently so that its value is maximized. She praised the Board of Education and superintendent for listening to the staff during the pandemic, reminding the audience that “there was no playbook” and that all the teachers and staff had to scramble to adapt to unprecedented teaching conditions. “I’m going to tell you, the kindergarten teacher and the preschool teacher had no idea when they entered the profession, that one day they would be teaching the classes online. The educational staff not only rose to the occasion and kept in touch with students, and making sure they succeeded… Then they came back to the new normal. No one knew what the new normal would be. But again, they adapted and they continue to adapt every day.”
Since that time, she said, teachers have had to look to support the mental and emotional concerns students have coming out of the pandemic.
The ESSER money, school officials said, has been applied to meet many of those concerns, from hiring more counselors to expanding other resources to meet the unique challenges and needs which were directly the result of the pandemic.
“I started off my career as an elected school board member,” Menendez said, “so I appreciate what you and your colleagues are doing for Garfield. It’s a labor of love.”
As the senator wrapped up the conference, the teachers presented him and Congressman Pascrell with school t-shirts as a sign of their appreciation.