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Each district will be expected to develop a plan to reopen schools in the fall that best fits the district’s needs. The plan must be made available to the public at least one month before opening day. KATE ALBRIGHT/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.com

If the spread of COVID-19 stays contained, New Jersey public schools will be open for in-person instruction this fall.

But how exactly the school day will look for Montclairians is still a work in progress.

On July 1, Montclair’s interim superintendent, Nathan Parker, handed the reins over to Dr. Jonathon Ponds. In a farewell letter to parents, Parker said five teams were working on the reopening. 

Gov. Phil Murphy and Department of Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet gave guidelines to school districts on Friday, June 26, with the release of “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education,” allowing for the reopening of schools.

Students will have to wear masks when social distancing is not possible. And remote learning will still be a probability. COURTESY WIKI COMMONS

It gives minimum standards for schools to create their own plans on how best to protect the health and safety of students and staff, but mandates that social distancing be practiced in classrooms and that face coverings be worn by students and staff when social distancing is impossible, such as in hallways. 

The guidelines also suggest staggered schedules and hybrid learning, in which students receive both in-person and remote instruction. 

Each district will be expected to develop, in collaboration with community stakeholders, a plan to reopen schools that best fits the district’s needs. The plan must be made available to the public at least one month before opening day, Repollet said. 

PARENTS’ WISH LIST

Parker did not respond to an email asking for information on the district’s plans for the upcoming school year. But in a letter of goodbye to parents, he said that in June five teams began envisioning what schooling might look like in the fall. The five areas are K-2 instruction, mental health, students who disconnected from the learning process, the continuation of remote instruction, and a hybrid model of in-school and remote learning.  

With more than 550 Chromebooks and 55 hot spots distributed during the COVID crisis, the availability of devices at home over the summer will continue to offer options for additional learning, Parker said. 

In a survey responded to by 3,300 parents and 802 staff members, 55 percent said they would send their children to school in the fall, 39 percent were undecided, and 7 percent said they would not. 

Concerning safety measures, 37 percent were not confident that social distancing would be  maintained at facilities, 43 percent were moderately confident, and 20 percent were very confident. Forty-eight percent said they would feel safer with mandating face masks, 33 percent would feel only moderately safer, and 19 percent said they were not confident in the use of face coverings.

Fifty-four percent of parents said that they were not confident that the remote learning used during the lockdown had a positive effect on their child’s education, 39 were moderately confident, and 9 percent were very confident in it. And 46 percent of the parents did not find the remote curriculum engaging enough, 42 percent found it moderately engaging, and 13 percent thought it engaging.

Ninety-two percent have the internet and 88 percent have computer devices to support remote learning.

The biggest obstacles facing remote learning, according to parents, are missing friends and teachers. They also said that more live instruction is needed. 

Parents rated what they felt should be carried into the fall from the lockdown by importance as: Google Meet instruction, video-recorded lessons, virtual office hours, daily and weekly checklists, video messages and flexible Fridays.   

Parker said that the survey responses will be used in planning hybrid learning for the fall.  

THE NEED TO PIVOT ON A DIME

Because staying open will depend upon health data, districts will need to be prepared to pivot to remote instruction at any time during the 2020-2021 school year, state officials said. 

Each school district should be working to ensure that every student has a device and internet connectivity available. The state guidelines identify funding streams available to school districts to ensure students have access to technology.

Murphy ordered all New Jersey schools to close on March 18, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. School districts provided remote instruction and free lunches to those in need. 

Murphy said, “The return to school will pose challenges, but we are confident that New Jersey’s school districts can move forward in a way that best serves the needs of their district while also achieving a safe environment for students and staff.” 

The guidelines were compiled by a committee of nearly two dozen superintendents and representatives of 50 education and community organizations. Over 300 superintendents and 300,000 parents/guardians had input as well.

“New Jersey educators and families did an amazing job over the past three months implementing remote learning, even with relatively little time for planning. That effort was nothing short of heroic,” Repollet said. “However, too many parents feel that remote-only instruction isn’t working for their child, and too many children are falling behind. It is becoming abundantly clear that children need to return to a school environment in some capacity, and we need to do so safely. This is a matter of educational growth, and it’s a matter of equity.”

WHAT WE DO KNOW ABOUT FALL

The guidance describes several health and safety standards to be prioritized in school reopening:  

  • Social distancing: Schools and districts must allow for social distancing within the classroom. This can be achieved by ensuring students are seated at least six feet apart. If schools are not able to maintain this physical distance, additional modifications should be considered. These include physical barriers between desks and turning desks to face the same direction (rather than facing each other) or having students sit on only one side of a table and spaced apart.
  • Face coverings: School staff and visitors are required to wear face coverings unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health or the individual is under 2 years of age. Students are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings and are required to do so when social distancing cannot be maintained, unless doing so would inhibit the student’s health. Officials acknowledge that enforcing the use of face coverings may be impractical for young children or certain individuals with disabilities.
  • Limited capacity: It is recommended that students and staff be seated at least six feet apart in class when practicable. When weather allows, windows should be opened to allow for greater air circulation.
  • Cleaning/disinfecting: Procedures must be implemented by each school district for the sanitization of school buildings and school buses. Increased handwashing measures are also important for students and staff.

Other provisions in the guidance include: 

  • Cafeteria directors should consider staggering meal times to allow for social distancing; discontinuing self-serve or buffet lines; having students eat meals outside or in their classrooms; and requiring staff to disinfect eating areas after each group uses them.
  • Recess should be held in staggered shifts, with efforts to promote social distancing and hygiene protocols.
  • Cohorting: Schools may wish to identify small groups of students and keep them together (cohorting) to ensure that student and staff groupings are as static as possible, thereby limiting exposure to large groups of students.
  • School bus operators should encourage social distancing. CDC guidelines recommend seating on a school bus such that there is one student seated per row, skipping a row between each child, if possible. Barriers separating rows of bus seats may also be considered. If social distancing is not feasible, face coverings must be worn by students who are able to do so. Increased ventilation (i.e., opening windows) is also recommended in the guidelines.

“I understand this will be no easy feat,” Repollet said of the return to school. 

Districts can delay openings as long as they comply with providing 180 days of learning as required by the state, he said. Montclair has not set a firm date for reopening, but the district website has students returning on Sept. 8.