BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The district attempted to use a different technology for its virtual meeting, but unfortunately not everything went according to plan – and a glitch in the technology led to no public comments throughout the evening, despite many participants waiting in the queue to speak about school reopenings and other issues.
Interim superintendent Thomas Ficarra said Wednesday that this week’s board of education meeting was the first one they did using a new technology called WebEx.
“We had severe problems throughout the meeting, culminating in the most significant problem of all, when we didn’t realize people weren’t able to get in to make their comments,” he said.
Business administrator Peter Starrs had reported during the meeting that there were no public comments, although resident Sonja Chartowich said she and many others waited on hold for a long time, waiting for a host to let them in.
Ficarra said the district was not happy with the way the meeting turned out, and they are looking to work the kinks out of the system, or find a different service to use so the problem doesn’t happen again.
To compensate, Ficarra said, they will be putting up a special address on the website for people to send their comments in so the district can respond appropriately.
“The comments will be seen on the website,” he said. “We are working on that right now.”
Ficarra said it will be live for residents to submit their comments as soon as possible.
Chartowich said that among her questions, which she has since emailed to the district, was what role will vaccinations play in the restart plan, and whether the district sees staffing issues as still being a concern once teachers who want to be are vaccinated. She said she wanted to know if the 6-foot minimum distancing standards will be required after teacher vaccinations, or if barriers will be a viable option then.
In addition, Chartowich said, she would like to know if district personnel have spoken to any other districts in the surrounding areas to see how they have opened for more in-person instruction.
“I also asked for clarification on following the proper channels for our questions,” she said. “To whom should we direct our questions about the road back plan? And while the board may want to have ideas consolidated through specific committees before being presented with them, this information wasn’t clearly communicated from the district to know that this was another avenue to reach out to. This could be our single point of contact.”
Parent Melanie Santos said she wanted to ask about the accommodations for special education.
"With the upcoming plans for more in-person instruction, what is the plan for accommodating the special education population," she said. "Specific to students who have IEPs, there has been no discussion of this to date."
As residents continue to call for more information on the reopening of the schools and the plans for going forward, Ficarra said his presentation at Tuesday’s board of education meeting was a focus on where the district goes from here. One thing he hopes residents remember is that the core values behind the decision-making process for the district is based on knowing what they don’t know and making sure they seek professional guidance in all cases.
“We have never been through a pandemic before,” he said. “The analogy I make is that as a school district, and as superintendent of schools, as well as administrative staff, we make decisions that are outside our realm of expertise and we do that with advice.”
“In this case, we are dealing with health,” he added. “You couldn’t get a more critical issue in dealing with children.”
Ficarra said the district gets its guidance from the Department of Health, Department of Education and the CDC. They run through the specific facts they have, he said, and then call local health officials and get input from health experts.
“In turn, when it comes to a serious decision, something more than quarantining certain individuals, but something like closing a whole school, we go to the New Jersey State Health Department,” he said. “We are following the written advice as well as the professional advice of health officials.”
“I make that point over and over again, because there seems to be a sense that we are going with our guts when we are not,” he added. “I’ve said I will not make decisions based on the popular opinion or politics that surround the pandemic.”
Ficarra noted that of the large districts in the county and surrounding counties, Bridgewater-Raritan is the only one that has been able to maintain kindergarten through sixth grade schools open continuously for in-person instruction since October.
As for the middle school and high school, which is currently on a two-week closure due to COVID cases, they have hit a specific criteria each time they have closed, and the circumstances have been discussed with health officials, who ran it by state health officials, and advised the closures to in-person instruction.
“At each event, we don’t just run with the mood or local networks, we are reading guidance, running interpretations and double checking everything,” he said.
In terms of transparency to the public, Ficarra said he understands that sometimes the district makes an assumption that residents know the decisions they are making and why, and they are guilty of not giving all the information.
“We do have to do better at informing people of what we are doing,” he said.
But, Ficarra said, they did have two very extensive presentations in the last month regarding plans for reopening, and they were published on the district website and distributed to those who asked for it.
In terms of requests for surveys, Ficarra said the goal is to make sure they are not sending out a survey that wouldn’t result in actionable items.
He said they just sent out a teacher survey, and are working on one for parents that should be sent out by the end of the week.
“We want to ask opinions from our constituency, parents, taxpayers, residents, to ask what they think about these options,” he said. “We are talking about increasing instructional time, increasing in-person time under various circumstances. When we can articulate and send that out to parents, which will happen this week, we will.”
Ficarra said that when the district opened for hybrid learning, on Oct. 12, they were okay until about three weeks in, when they hit a huge spike in cases after Halloween.
“We were reeling from people being quarantined, staff being out and we were barely holding together coverage for our students,” he said.
Then there was a lull, he said, before the district got hit again after Thanksgiving and again after the holidays.
“Our teachers and principals are doing everything possible to keep it together at the schools, and I can’t speak highly enough about the job they have done,” he said. “It is a credit to them about why we are open when others are not. Many came in knowing they were going to do their jobs and someone else’s because we quarantined so many people.”
In the process, Ficarra said, they have had teams of people still exploring new options, and some day they will plateau, and they have to figure out what it will look like when they do.
“I want to dispel the idea that we are not pursuing a way to increase virtual and in-person instruction time, but we have to make sure we have enough staff here to complete that task, and, many days, our principals and teachers and staff were so understaffed that it was all we could do to keep the place open,” he said. “But we do have our eye on the future.”