BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ -- Despite scaling back its proposal, the Bernards Township Board of Education continued on Feb. 11 to face blowback against proposed additional health classes at Ridge High School.

Administrators said they would drop the idea to add a marking period of classroom work in health in the junior year and only propose to add nine weeks of curriculum for sophomores.

Any change would have to be approved by the board by early April to allow for student schedule changes – applicable only to the present freshman class, as it stands now.

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Under the newest proposal, sophomores would continue to miss gym class for one marking period for driver education. A proposed second marking period of class time would focus on such topics as personal growth and acceptance, communication, bullying, suicide prevention, nutrition, drugs and medicines, and fitness and wellness. Two nine-week marking periods of gym class would fill out the year.

The modified proposal was proffered as a compromise, but six residents commented critically. More than two dozen speakers trooped to the microphone Jan. 28 to pan a presentation on the original proposal.

The complaints center on the potential for student-athletes to lose the Option II study hall for that marking period in season, and skepticism about effective use of class time and the health curriculum in general.

Resident Elaine DiDario, who had a part in posting an online petition opposing changes, said the curriculum revision process should be stopped and rethought. She said a new class that bears on a student’s GPA adds stress, and imposes a particular burden in the busy and hectic junior year, was particularly wrong.

The board is trying to address a continuing concern that students “are in crisis” by being overstressed by social and school pressures, Superintendent Nick Makarian said in a Jan. 29 letter to parents.

The school community, and community at large, have expressed concerns about student stressors following two youngsters’ suicides in the 2017-18 school year, multiple alumni drug overdoses and increases in student requests for professional guidance help. In surveys, students have said they felt pressured to achieve academically, overwhelmed by sport and school demands on time, and conflicted with social pressures.

Board Vice-President Karen Gray, chair of the curriculum committee, said that questions that arose about use of time in current health classes were being addressed. Students said they were presented with outdated movies, irrelevant topics and lost time they filled on their cell phones.

DiDario pointed out the state law requires that school districts to encourage community involvement in the development and review of health education programs. She said that parents, teachers, administrators, community and religious leaders and students should all be involved in the process.

Emphasis on social and emotional learning should be woven into all aspects of the school day, not just health class, she said.

Resident Alicia Martine told the board that comments at the last meeting made it “clear that the entire current health curriculum needs to be revised.”

“We don’t expect to teach every concept in chemistry, and we should have the same philosophy regarding health,” she said. “Rather than trying to include everything, we should choose the concepts that are most meaningful to our community.”

She questioned why driver education had to be nine weeks long, and why CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) couldn’t be taught in a lot less time, for instance. 

Resident James Vopal again addressed what he said was a poorly written health curriculum that was insensitive to mental and physical illness and disabilities.

In a Jan 29 letter to parents, as well as Monday’s meeting, Markarian apologized for “a specific senior health ‘Family Living Project’ and associated ‘Birth Defects’ handout which were outdated and unprofessional. Furthermore, the handouts contained some inaccuracies and word choices that were insensitive and offensive,” he wrote.

He said “a comprehensive evaluation of the entire heath program is planned over the next year.” “Clearly we want to make sure that all of the work in our health classes is accurate, up-to-date and valuable for our students – anything less will be eradicated,” he wrote.

Board member Michael Byrne repeated his concern about defining the problem of student stress. Without knowing the why, it’s difficult to address a remedy, he said.

Board member Timothy Salmon agreed that no one knows the answers to what might work in a social emotional learning curriculum. The board was presenting a proposal that was a “best guess” and expected to hear what the public thought of it.

He said his impression from late fall meetings to shape a long-range district vision plan was that social emotional learning was a main concern.

Board members defended themselves from emails and online comments that they “don’t care about children,” said Board President Robin McKeon.

Member Jennifer Korn said, “I’m a mom, too,” who hears and feels the pressures of students involved in sports.

The board was looking to address a gap of nearly two years without classroom health education. Now, students go from the fourth marking period of freshman year to the third marking period year of junior year without health classroom work (other than driver ed).

The Jan. 28 presentation said, “The benefits of additional relevant education in the fields of health and wellness far outweigh the ‘stress benefit’ of an extra study hall.”

Health class is not designed to be an “academic burden,” department supervisor Rich Shello said, with “extremely limited homework” and grading reflecting active participation and engagement as opposed to written tests or quizzes.

The district proposed to finalize health course revision and write curriculum this summer for implementation next fall. It would also review the physical education curriculum this summer.

The district this year has increased the sixth- and seventh-grade health programs by three weeks to a nine-week marking period. It has also increased the presence of Student Assistance Counselors in presenting lessons, especially in mental health and suicide prevention, said the Jan. 28 presentation.