Galligan Elected BOE President; Youth Mental Health Is Focus

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By LAUREN S. BARR
For The Westfield Leader

WESTFIELD — At last Thursday’s Westfield Board of Education reorganization meeting, new members were sworn in and a new president and vice-president were chosen, before members of the public took to the microphone to discuss masks, in-person versus remote learning and the psychological impact of remote learning on children and adolescents.

Robert Benacchio, Mary Wickens and Kristen Sonnek-Schmelz were sworn in by Board Attorney Richard Kaplow. Following that, the board unanimously elected Brendan Galligan as president. Immediate past president Amy Root, who nominated Mr. Galligan, said, “I know he’s ready for this role and I believe he is the right face at the right time to lead this board of education this year.”

Sahar Aziz and Michael Bielen were both nominated for vice-president.

Much of the lengthy discussion of the nominees centered around Mr. Bielen’s experience since elected in 2019 versus Ms. Aziz, who was elected in 2020, and that Ms. Aziz will not be running for reelection in the next cycle.

Ultimately, Ms. Aziz was elected as vice-president by a 7-to-2 vote, with Mr. Bielen and Mr. Benacchio casting the no votes.

Members of the public honed in on their desire to see all in-person instruction for students going forward, with several citing mental health factors.

Dr. Mona Nicolae, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who resides in town, stressed the impact that the pandemic has had on young people. She shared that there is another pandemic, “more real and serious than Covid-19.” Dr. Nicolae said that, pre-pandemic, one youth in America died of suicide every six hours; now it is 11 to 12 adolescents every six hours.

“Suicide is a bigger health threat than the Covid-19 pandemic,” Dr. Nicolae told the board. She said that children and teens are becoming more depressed, anxious and suicidal. “I want you to realize that you are depriving our youngest members of the society of education, emotional and social development. It doesn’t make any sense to deny our children the opportunity to enjoy and celebrate life when deaths from and with Covid are equivalent to 0.56.”

With Governor Phil Murphy’s statewide school mask mandate set to expire at midnight on Tuesday, several parents took to the microphone advocating for mask choice. However, on Tuesday afternoon, the governor reinstated the public-health emergency and renewed the in-school mask mandate for at least an additional 30 days.

Kevin Zippler, a lifelong resident of Westfield, urged the board to allow for mask choice when the mandate expires. A father of four children, he said he has, “watched them suffer and be irrevocably harmed in so many ways while being used as political pawns under the guise of safety against a virus that is zero threat to them.”

Kyle George raised concern that schoolchildren were prevented from drinking water during the day, saying that the kids are “subjected to varying dystopian and draconian rules.” He asked the board members if they are forced to wear a mask at their desk for hours and prohibited from drinking. “Since the start of this meeting, I have seen at least two of you luxuriously pull down your masks to take sips of water,” Mr. George said. “Shouldn’t our kids have the same ability to do that in school?”

After the public comment, Superintendent Raymond González, Ed.D., said that, “Concerns regarding the social, emotional well-being of our students is certainly something that we do take seriously…Each and every decision that’s made is one that takes into account all of our multiple, and competing, and concurrent variables, both to maintain the continuity of instruction for the academic benefit of our students but also for the social, emotional well-being of our students.”

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