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At the end of June, the East Ramapo school board, dominated by a religious majority, voted 5-3 to rent school properties to private Orthodox Jewish summer camps. The item was added to the district’s budget agenda just before the board meeting began to prevent discussion. East Ramapo is the only school district in Rockland County to lease facilities to private summer camps.
Meanwhile, the districts overwhelmingly Black and Latino student population will not be able to attend summer school because of the Coronavirus virus school shutdown. Either these facilities are safe or they are not? If they are safe, shouldn’t the public school student population have priority? Studies show that many children, especially in minority communities, are falling months behind in school because of COVID-19 shutdowns.
East Ramapo is located in Rockland County, which remains a Coronavirus “hot spot” in New York State because of blatant disregard for safety precautions in the region. In April, Rockland County had the highest per capita rate of coronavirus infection in the state largely because its ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities refused to follow social distancing guidelines. A year earlier, its ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities also had a massive measles outbreak because of religious objections to vaccination. If the school properties are not safe for public school children to use because of the Coronavirus, New York State should step in and block the rental to prevent another massive Coronavirus outbreak.
The nine-member East Ramapo school board is dominated by Orthodox Jewish men and the four private camp programs all serve the local ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. That community’s 27,000 children attend Orthodox Jewish yeshivas. They have long been accused of ignoring the needs of the approximately 11,000 primarily Black and Latino children who attend the district’s public schools. In 2014, the New York State Department of Education named advisory state monitors to oversee the East Ramapo School District, however it continually refuses to give the monitors statutory authority or replace the district’s governing board.
Three school board members, unaffiliated with the board’s religious majority, voted against the lease. They questioned its economic benefit for the school district and challenged the unfairness of permitting private groups to use school facilities at a time when most public school children would be forced to remain home under lockdown.
The websites of the private camps make clear their religious affiliation. The Lubavitch Day Camp of Monsey advertises that their “goal for your child” is “to enjoy a wide range of exciting activities and field trips in an environment of chayos [enthusiasm] in Torah and Mitzvos [Biblical commandments].” The camp charges $300 per camper for a week, $1,000 for a month, and $1,650 for the full summer.
Issues with the Ultra-Orthodox community and East Ramapo schools have been going on for more than a decade. Thousands Black and Latino children attending East Ramapo public schools are warehoused in over-crowded and under-funded failing schools. In 2014, a state monitor reported that the school board showed favoritism toward the Orthodox Jewish students attending private schools and called on the State Legislature to provide the district’s public schools with additional funding. According to Steve White, chair of “East Ramapo Stakeholders for Public Education,” even the children attending the religious school are being cheated out of an adequate education. Instruction in some of the area’s religious schools, especially local Hasidic boys’ schools, fails to satisfy state mandates for secular education and the school district and New York State have ignored these failures.
A federal judge blocked an attempt by the area’s Orthodox Jewish groups to operate sleep away camps because they cannot be operated safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, but their day camp programs at East Ramapo public school sites continue.
When will New York State finally step in?
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