Back to school in a pandemic: How 3 districts in NJ are preparing
As students work through their summer reading lists, New Jersey's school superintendents have their own summer work in putting together a back-to-school plan for September.
With five weeks to go, there are mixed feelings about a return to in-person learning for the first time since March, when Gov. Phil Murphy closed all public and private schools to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The plans, which have to be submitted to the state Department of Education four weeks before the first day of classes, have to comply with guidelines set forth by the state. Social distancing in classrooms, at schools and on the school bus, the wearing of face coverings, cafeteria time and scheduling are all questions that must be addressed.
"Lots of districts are looking at different models. Everything's going to be based on their capacity, their transportation, their staff availability, the size of their rooms. And sometimes the number of walkers and numbers of buses," West Windsor-Plainsboro Superintendent David Aderhold told New Jersey 101.5.
An FDU poll shows that 46% of adults in New Jersey believe schools should reopen with the appropriate protective measures in place, while 42% support a return to online learning until a COVID-19 treatment or vaccine becomes available. State guidelines do not allow for full virtual learning short of another full closure of schools.
Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday that one of the options that could be offered to parents by school districts is all-remote learning. Superintendents had sought clarification on that point as it came back a popular option among parents in surveys.
NJEA president Marie Blistan told NorthJersey.com's Mike Kelly that there is not enough time for districts to put together a plan for a safe return to school in September.
“We can’t just reopen schools because on the school calendar it says so. It is just not business as usual," Blistan told Kelly.
About 14,000 people in New Jersey have died from the virus since March, with another 177,600 illnesses. Most of the deaths have been of adults over 50, particularly those over 80 and with other underlying health issues.
The district is offering parents and students two possible "learning models" that address the concerns of parents who are not ready for a full return to the classroom, according to Superintendent David Aderhold.
A survey of parents in June came back with 60% of elementary parents, 55% of middle school parents and 50% of high school parents indicating that they would not send their children to school in the fall and want an option for an all-virtual model, according to Aderhold.
The superintendent said that a survey of staff came back that 20-30% have concerns about a return to classrooms.
The district is offering an in-person/hybrid model, which will have students attend class in school every morning and have virtual instruction in the afternoon for one week and then all virtual the second week.
"We're erring towards safety and heath and wellness and honoring social distancing" with fewer students in rooms and more distance between individuals, Aderhold said.
The district's all virtual plan includes "scheduled synchronous learning, live interaction with teachers, and mandatory participation times," according to the district website.
Aderhold thinks that his district can successfully offer hybrid learning while serving parent who wish for their children to have all virtual learning in the fall.
"I think we have a responsibility to those families to do that — it's good common sense, it helps us with our teachers that are going to be requesting medical exemptions and considerations as well as child care considerations. To me it just makes logical sense to move forward in that direction," Aderhold said.
In the back of his mind is whether schools will be shut completely again. Health experts have long predicted a second wave of the virus in the fall.
One of the biggest issues of reopening businesses in New Jersey is is also a factor in the Cranford school district plan: indoor dining.
Superintendent Scott Rubin said two plans are under consideration based upon 6 feet of social distancing currently in the state guidelines. An emergency plan would be ready if schools have to close again.
Students in preschool through fifth grade would attend class Monday and Wednesdays and alternating Fridays. Middle school students would group into cohort and attend class Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday and alternate Fridays. High school students would split into three groups and attend in-person every third day.
If the state allows social distancing of 3 feet, which is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, all students would attend daily on a modified schedule with no lunch or recess.
"Gov. Murphy’s executive order does not currently allow in-person dining in restaurants; therefore, it would make it difficult to justify serving lunch in schools at this time," Rubin wrote.
Outdoor dining is allowed but Murphy pulled the plug on indoor dining going into the Independence Day weekend over concerns that the coronavirus is easily spread indoors.
Superintendent Rob Zywicki is in a unique position when it comes to formulating his district's learning plan as the draft he put together before the end of the 2019-20 school year was the basis for the state guidelines announced June 26 by then-Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet. Repollet has since left the position to become president of Kean University.
Zywicki does not believe a full return to classrooms will happen in September and is focused on three possible plans for an announcement on Aug. 3: traditional learning with severe social distancing; a split schedule between in-class and virtual learning; and full virtual learning.
Given the recent increases in rate of transmission in New Jersey and a national spike in COVID-19 cases, Zywicki said that during a Facebook Live meeting with parents he prepared them for all three options. He's also put out a survey seeking input from parents.
"I can tell you preliminarily it looks like about 40% of our parents say that if given the option would keep their kids virtual," Zywicki said, adding that he knows that people will be upset no matter which plan the district goes with and recognizes the burden that virtual learning places on working parents.
He is also concerned at what the lack of indoor dining at New Jersey restaurants means for lunch at school .
"If we don't have indoor dining how is it that kids are supposed to eat lunch in school on a rainy or a cold day?" Zywicki said.
Zywicki is optimistic that someday that things will go back to normal without worrying about social distancing and wearing masks within the next year to two years.
"But I do think that at some point in time we will need all four of those options as we ratchet back up to normal learning, whether it's through a vaccine or the rate of transmission decreases. I do see us returning to normal at some point in time. I just don't think it's as soon as everyone wants it to be right now."
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