MIDDLETOWN, NJ: Middletown Township parents have many opinions about re-starting full-time in-person classroom instruction soon at its public schools, which they expressed at a special Board of Education meeting held on Jan 14th, which aimed to serve as a progress/status update report on how the district was doing with its re-opening plan.

In New Jersey, the COVID-19 rate of transmission has come down 80% from its April highs and hospitalizations have dropped to just over half from its April highs of over 8000. However, the deadly virus remains a concern across the state even as vaccinations begin to pick up steam. Schools are beginning to open from Hoboken to next door neighbor Holmdel which is now open 5 days a week in-school for about 3000 students

This special meeting, was held at the Middletown High School North auditorium. It was also live streamed on Zoom (through which the public participated in the meeting), as well as on the school district’s Facebook page and YouTube Channel. The meeting was structured differently than normal in that a one-hour public comment session took place before the meeting’s agenda items were addressed, rather than afterward as in traditional past Board meetings.

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The views expressed by Middletown residents at the meetings ranged from favoring re-opening full-time as soon as possible to waiting until later before allowing more students in, to proposing possible solutions that would fall somewhere in between.

The first parent to speak at the meeting was Stephanie Vecciurelli, who has a daughter in River Plaza Elementary school and a son in Bayview Elementary School.   Vecciurelli congratulated the new members of the Board, and then expressed some concern about the idea of re-opening full-time right away.

“I think that with the rise in (COVID-19) cases right now in New Jersey, specifically in Monmouth County, we need to take a very cautious approach to having more kids in the classroom,” she said.  

Vecciurelli added that her biggest worries were about adequate social distancing being harder to maintain with a full student body in the classrooms than with only a few students being in each classroom as a result of hybrid learning; and the idea of giving the students lunch, which would create a time period during which there would be no mask wearing.

“The safety and health of all the children in the district, as well as all the staff, should be the first priority when looking at the re-opening plan,” she said. “We all want our children in school, we all want them learning in person, but it has to be done safely.”

Later in the meeting, another parent named Colleen Halloran, who has two children in high school, said she supports the idea of re-opening school full-time and with a full-student capacity, and said she was confident that COVID-19 transmission in schools would not be very likely to happen.

“I believe that it is safe and it is time to bring back all students full-time,” Halloran said.

Next to speak was Vera Pasecki, who has a child in Thompson Middle School and another at High School South, said that perhaps the best approach would be to customize a plan for full-time in-person instruction by each individual school, since each school might have unique circumstances that others might not have.

“What’s happening at South is very different than what might be happening at Leonardo,” Pasecki said.

Another viewpoint was expressed by Dan Pitzer, a Port Monmouth resident who suggested that the best way to solve the debate between resuming full-time in person learning in the near future versus not doing that would be to allow any parent who wants to place their children in full-time remote to have that option, and also allow these parents he flexibility to change their minds at any time. In New Jersey, the governor mandated that a virtual option is available to all students.

“It’s important for parents to have that remote (learning) option for their own kids,” Pitzer said. “If people are comfortable sending their kids back 5 days a week, then go ahead; but we want to make sure that the parents who don’t feel comfortable doing that will have the option to keep their own kids in a remote learning situation.”

Afterward, Middletown resident Lisa Leak said that even though some studies appear to indicate that children being the source of local COVID-19 outbreaks might be relatively rare, that would not necessarily make it safe to resume full-time in-person instruction with a full-student body; mainly because children could still in theory pass the virus onto their teachers, who could then pass it on to their elderly relatives, who would then be at risk for major medical complications from COVID-19.   It could also make it harder to trace the source of local COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, since there would then be a wider pool of potential sources.

“(That’s why) We can’t just let everyone come back in all at once,” Leak said.

Middletown resident Bridget Zelma then suggested that the re-opening plan could focus on considering Elementary, Middle, and High School separately; since some types of schools might be harder to maintain social distance in than others – giving as an example that Elementary Schools have their students in single classrooms unlike in Middle and High Schools.

The last Middletown parent to speak was Jessie Sickler, who said that regardless of whether it would be safe to re-open in-person instruction full-time with a full-student body, the benefits of such a move in terms of educational quality would not come to fruition if there are too many teachers who are absent or on medical or family caregiving leave because of COVID-19 related reasons or other reasons.

“They (the students) might as well stay home if they are going to be looking at their teacher on the computer anyway,” she said.  “If you don’t have the (adequate teaching) staff to bring people back (as students), you don’t have the staff.”

After this, the Board closed the public comment portion and moved on to a presentation on how the district re-opening plan was going along so far, with Superintendent Mary Ellen Walker explaining how the plan came about and what it has accomplished so far.  

Walker mentioned that the plan, which was put together over the summer, was based on a blueprint sent by the New Jersey Departments of Education (NJDOE) and Health (NJDOH) as guidance.

She also explained that the plan had 6 re-opening phases, and that the district was currently on Phase 5.

Phases 1 and 2 were preparation phases for teachers and students, whereas Phase 3 was when the A and B cohort system was implemented and allowed for a maximum of 50 percent student capacity at the schools, and only 2-3 days a week of in-person learning per student, with the rest of the time on remote learning, Walker said.  

Phases 4 to 6 gradually increase the number of students allowed until all students can attend in-person learning at Phase 6, Walker said.

Phases 1 to 3 were implemented in September, while Phase 4 was implemented in October and Phase 5 was implemented last month and finished this month; with Phase 6 not being implemented yet, Walker said.

Afterwards, school administrator Devyn Orozco said that the NJDOH guidelines now require quarantine for all close contacts of anyone with COVID-19 like symptoms rather than just for close contacts of confirmed positive cases, and that an alternative diagnosis is no longer enough to be allowed back into school buildings from quarantine, as only a confirmed negative COVID-19 test result would be accepted for that purpose. 

Next, Patrick Rinella, another school administrator, said that the in-person attendance percentage of students eligible to be in the school building that day was highest in Elementary School and lowest in the High Schools, and also said that classroom sizes vary widely.

“Some classrooms have 2 or 3 students, while others have 7 to 9 students,” Rinella said.

Last but not least, Board President Joan Minnues said that there would be no voting or formal decisions conducted at this meeting, and that the purpose of the meeting was mainly to alert the public about the re-opening status of the district in general.

“I’m glad we got to do the presentation out for the public as well as the school board,” Minnues said.