SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- In a letter to parents, Scotch Plains-Fanwood SPFK12 district superintendent Dr. Joan Mast unveiled the planned schedule for in-class instruction in the fall. 

The hybrid model will utilize a cohort structure to reduce the number of students in a classroom at any given time to maximize social distancing and to lower the number of individuals with which any student or staff member comes into contact. When in school, students in the assigned group will have a single session schedule (four hours of in-person instruction).

There will be two groups of students. Group 1 (Last names starting with A through L) has in-person instruction at school on Mondays and Tuesdays and participates in all-day online learning for the rest of the week. Similarly, Group 2 (Last names starting with M through Z) attends school on Thursdays and Fridays and participates all-day online learning on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. (Editor's note: Assigned days will be determined by the number of students whose names start with letters in the first half of the alphabet.)

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The online instruction will be a blend of live-streaming and Google classroom presentations and chat.

"We are upgrading our virtual tools and looking at options such as Zoom, Google Enterprise, and WebEx. It will give teachers flexibility," said Dr. Mast in an exclusive interview with TAPintoSPF. "When Group 1 is in the classroom, Group 2 is join remotely. It’s not a repeat on Thurs-Friday because otherwise you would not get through the curriculum."

For children who might struggle with predominantly online instruction, teachers will schedule times with students in the afternoon via Facetime or other virtual interaction.

Students attending in-person instruction at school, as well as those who opt for remote-only learning, will have a regular class schedule, receiving instruction from their teachers and interacting with peers. All students will be engaged in their class schedule via on-line learning on Wednesdays, when school facilities will undergo a "deep cleaning" in between Group 1 and Group 2 in-school learning.

"The whole idea is to have cohorts for contact tracing. They have to be ready, show up two days and then be with that group on Google classroom," Dr. Mast said. "The blend of being in class and learning virtually will be more engaging. We are building the plane while we are flying it."

Cleaning of high touch points, such as door knobs and restrooms, will take place daily. For the middle and high school students, Wednesday was chosen for deeper cleaning after half of the student population moves through the school. This will allow for ventilation before next group comes into school on Thursday and Friday. (Editor's Note: Elementary school students will alternate Wednesdays for in-school instruction.)

Teacher response

"Overall, the majority are looking forward to having contact with students," Dr. Mast said. "They want to establish rapport and get to know their new kids. Some teachers are concerned based on their own wellness since some are in higher risk categories or live with people at higher risk."

"Like other working parents, teachers have problems with childcare. Everyone will have to figure it out," she added. "Parents and teachers want to make sure buildings are safe and protocols are in place. People will be anxious, but when they come back, I think they will be comfortable."

Dr. Mast is part of a Union County roundtable of superintendents who talk about directions their districts are going in and obstacles they face. She has been following what other districts are doing very carefully.

"Whatever model you choose has pros and cons. You could go one week on, one week off, but that’s a long time away from interaction with a teacher," she said. "Keeping siblings together is something to consider. Class size and social distancing are a challenge. We are still not quite 6 feet  apart in every case, but we are close to it. It’s as safe as we can be. We also have mask-wearing and mindfulness of social distancing."

Dr. Mast did not address all the health protocols in her communication with parents on Sunday because, she says, the final details are still being worked out with the district physician. 

What to do about non-compliance

"If a student refuses to wear a mask or be mindful of social distancing, that student puts himself/herself and others at risk," Dr. Mast said. "I have asked this question, and the medical professionals have said that those children would have to stay home."

What are the health protocols?

Dr. Mast said that someone with temperature will be put in quarantine room and must go home, get tested, and receive clearance from a doctor before returning to school in person. Health professionals then would assist in the contact tracing of whom must be notified. The district is still working on the final protocols and will soon announce them.

Families can expect to receive a survey in the coming days to make a choice for each child. The two options are the hybrid model or the online learning model. Parents can choose the option they believe best meets their child's individual needs.

"We are going to push he kids to accomplish what they would under normal circumstances. It’s hard on parents and on kids and their teachers," Dr. Mast said. "We must focus that this is temporary. It’s unfortunate, but not insurmountable. I spoke with the AP calculus teacher and asked whether he will be able to prepare students as well as he had in the past. He said he will prepare them differently, but they will still be prepared."

Hardship cases

The superintendent said that she has heard concerns from first responders and from families with multiple young children. Additionally, there are a number of families in the district who have been impacted by finances.

"They are grateful for the one-to-one technology issue. Knowing that some families have greater hardship, we are working with them. Everyone will have their own device and internet access," Dr. Mast said. "The silver lining of having virtual school is that you are building a toolbox for learning with a computer. Even when we go back to normal, we will still use these techniques."

Kids will have the devices that the district supplies and then ultimately must return them. The district has a database of all its computers. It’s similar (but more costly) to when a student doesn't return a textbook or an instrument: they won't get to graduate. Thus, there is some form of collateral.

What can be done so students do not lose ground?

"There is concern that some students will be behind, and I am worried about how they will overcome this period in their academic history, but the whole world is in the same boat," Dr. Mast said.

"Teachers will have the option to do live and recorded instruction. We have to be thoughtful about privacy," Dr. Mast explained. "A teacher could turn on classroom during direct instruction, and they could direct the kids in small group time and engage everyone in conversation. It is a new skill, but we envision everyone participating."

Dr. Mast most wants parents to know that learning during the 2020-21 academic year will continue ion a meaningful way.

Mental Health

"Kids will be engaged and accountable. Administrators checking in on them to make sure they are okay. We need everyone to be involved so that kids are okay," the superintendent said. "This disruption is causing depression in kids and sometimes suicidal ideation. We want to make sure we are looking after the mental wellness of our kids."

Dr. Mast says that the district is focusing on social and emotional response to the hybrid and remote only instruction. She is looking to provide more resources (personnel and perhaps outside agencies and consultation) to address the mental health of students in the district. 

Editor's note: The text of Dr. Mast's letter follows:

August 2, 2020

Dear SPF Community,

We recognize how extensive the current disruptions are in every aspect of our lives. The unknown factors that surround this pandemic raise the stress level for all. We as adults know that we will get through this crisis. We need to continue to communicate optimism and hope to our children. Additionally, we must monitor their mental wellness and give them appropriate support. Thank you for continuing to work together as a community to support our students.

As my previous communications have shared, the administration and various district committees have all been planning with urgency through the summer months to prepare for a safe return to school for students and teachers. The guidance from the NJDOE requires districts to plan for 3 scenarios:

• A model where all are back in our buildings full time (not available at this time)

• A hybrid model

• An ALL on-line learning model

We will be sending out an additional survey in the coming days for families to make a choice for each of their children. The two options are the hybrid model or the on-line learning model. Parents can choose different models for each child based on individual needs. Students who participate in the fully on-line learning model will participate in the same classes as the students in the hybrid model, receiving the same instruction that is happening in the classroom and having opportunities to collaborate with other students virtually.

At this time, we have made significant progress in clarifying our hybrid model that includes scheduling siblings to attend school on the same day.  The hybrid model uses a cohort structure to reduce the number of students in a classroom at any given time in order to maximize social distancing and to reduce the number of individuals with which any student or staff member comes into contact. This provides an additional level of safety and protection for all members of our community. As we assign students to their cohorts, we will be able to ensure that students from the same household are assigned to the same cohort so that they will be in school on the same days.

Elementary level students (Grades K-4) will be split into 2 groups for in-school rotation. When in school, students in the assigned group will have a single session schedule (4 hours of in-person instruction) in order to allow time to be transported home and have lunch. Once home, the learning day will continue for all students with ongoing, scheduled, differentiated instruction in order to provide a full day of learning.

• Group 1 has in person instruction at school on Mondays and Tuesdays and participates in all-day online learning on Thursdays and Fridays.

• Group 2 attends in person instruction at school on Thursdays and Fridays and participates all-day online learning on Mondays and Tuesdays.

• Groups 1 and 2 will be attending in-person instruction on alternating Wednesdays. Middle school and high school students (Grades 5-12) will also be split into 2 groups. When in school, students will participate in a single-session schedule (4 hours of in-person instruction) in order to allow time to be transported home and have lunch.

Once home, the learning day will continue for all students with additional, scheduled instruction in order to provide a full day of learning. All students, both those in school and at home will follow the same class schedule.

• Group 1 has in-person instruction at school on Mondays and Tuesdays and participates in all-day online learning on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

• Group 2 attends in-person instruction at school on Thursdays and Fridays and participates all-day on-line learning on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

• Whether students are participating in in-person instruction at school or on-line learning at home, they will be engaged with their regular class schedule, receiving instruction from their teacher and interacting with peers. All students will be engaged in their class schedule via on-line learning on Wednesdays.

Considering the number of students who will be moving throughout the school on any given day at the middle schools and the high school, providing Wednesday as an online learning day allows time for additional cleaning and air filtration.

Additional planning is happening in the areas of Special Education and Pre-K. Programs will be based on each child’s IEP.

We will be communicating more details this week. Additionally, due to the need for social distancing busing is a significant safety consideration. Since students will attend school in cohorts each bus will transport fewer students. However, maximum social distancing will not be achievable. Therefore, students will be assigned seats and must follow strict bus rules including requirements for mask wearing and open windows for ventilation. You will always retain the option to change your child’s learning model. Specific dates will be published to change your child’s schedule. Additional updates will be forthcoming.

Sincerely,

Dr. Joan Mast
Superintendent of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Public Schools