WARETOWN, NJ – The Ocean Township Board of Education once again turned to a virtual format last night for its July monthly meeting. At least 66 individuals “zoomed” in to learn more about the district’s reopening plans for September. It was the best attended board meeting in at least the last year.

The three options considered by school districts include one that is totally remote, as well as a hybrid that incorporates remote learning and splits time with in-class instruction. The third is for full day instruction.  Ocean Township is preparing for a full brick and mortar return to classroom. Parents will also have the ability to opt for full remote learning.

A survey completed by parents offered a choice between rotating days of in-class instruction or total remote learning.  Ariane Phillips, Principal of Frederick A. Priff School said that the district received survey responses on behalf of 528 students.

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“The question was if we utilized an A/B schedule to operate at fifty percent capacity for each building and classroom, please indicate which option you will be choosing for your child,” explained Phillips.

The first selection was for parents to send their child to school and follow all social distancing requirements, including the necessity to wear a mask and comply with temperature requirements. Of the responses, 36.7 percent stated a preference for this option. Virtual learning was selected by 15.2 percent of those who answered. A majority of the parents (48.1 percent) said that they wanted their child to participate in both school and virtual learning.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christopher Lommerin said he joined superintendents from Stafford, LBI, Beach Haven, and Southern Regional in a meeting last week to discuss reopening options.

“I know Southern Regional in particular is planning on going back 100%,” shared the Ocean Township Superintendent.

Lommerin said he weighed the options and felt the hybrid model would not serve the needs of the community as far as parents returning to work.  

“The difference with the hybrid is that with half the class at home, you can socially distance the children,” Lommerin pointed out.  “With the 100% model (of in-class instruction) parents and staff have to understand that under the current guidelines, the mask is expected.”

Board member Sue McDowell said she was looking forward to the opening of the building for students and staff as long as it was done safely and within the state guidelines.

“I was under the impression that once we are in the classroom that the faculty and staff wear the masks,” said McDowell. “I did not think that students needed to do so.”

While first acknowledging that she is not a medical person, board member Kelly Zuzic also expressed her concerns about children wearing masks for extended periods of time. She wondered if there were even potential health risks associated with doing so.

“My gut tells me the best place for the children to be in is in school,” Zuzic stated. “The challenge as I see it are the masks.  Ideally, it would be better to social distance the kids, so they don’t have to endure them.”

According to Lommerin, students are required to wear masks whenever they are unable to social distance. If the school opens up for traditional teaching and learning and everyone returns, there is not enough space to move desks to meet the requirements.

“There are exceptions for masks,” said Board of Education President Shawn Denning. “If a child can’t cognitively manage it or has a medical issue, it’s not an absolute rule.  It’s a guideline – they recommend it.”

Lommerin believes the latch key program, aftercare program and before care programs will continue and is working out the details based on the Department of Education guidelines.

As far as temperature checks, Lommerin said they were reviewing how they would be done. Denning, who is a nurse practitioner, expressed his concerns about the procedures.

“Taking temperatures from a scientific standpoint is unique and you need a consistent temperature taker, “said Denning. “If you don’t have a consistent method and someone that is properly trained, you may get outliers.” 

Denning also suggested there would be a shift in guidelines for social distancing for school aged children, particularly because the American Academy of Pediatrics has come out and said that three feet is an acceptable social distance.

“We also have to understand that COVID-19 is at least at this point, though to not affect children – particularly children under the age of 11,” Denning opined. “The outliers do not typically have a significant outcome.  They are usually mildly symptomatic and have a full recovery.”

While pointing out that negative outcomes exist for other diseases such as strep throat or the flu, Denning also encouraged everyone to get a flu shot to avoid all extraneous illnesses.

“As COVID 19 goes away, the flu presents a big risk generally speaking and it is a good public health measure to prevent people from getting ill, “stressed Denning.

Ashley Ernest, a mother of young children, expressed her concerns that returning to full capacity would mean students would be required to wear masks. The survey results seemed to indicate that more parents were comfortable with returning at 50 percent capacity to allow for better social distancing.

“I am very concerned you are minimizing effects on children when we know so little about this virus,” said Ernest.

Denning said that as a nurse practitioner he looks at studies all day.  His opinions are based on what he has reviewed as of today and not based on hypotheticals.

“What is the absolute risk for COVID-19 and what is the absolute risk for getting a poor education?” he asked.

Amanda Lynn, whose daughter is due to start kindergarten, is also a former educator. She questioned what precautions the district intended to take for adults working with the children.

 “Typically, young people who are healthy have nothing to worry about with COVID,” said Denning.  “There is a mortality rate of less than one percent, so if you have a large enough sample size, you will have a mortality."

Denning said that older who have co-morbidities and things like that could be cycled out of work under the CARES ACT or other programs.

“Unfortunately, I believe that teachers are essential employees,” Denning continued. “Through this entire pandemic, essential employees have had to go to work and had to do their job – whether they be nurses, policemen, grocery store clerks, etc. I think that teachers are so valuable that they have to perform the duties essentially.”

According to Denning, teachers and staff are not going to be taking care of ill patients. They will not need access to gowns or face shields. The only requirement as it now stands are face masks.

Children will be eating in the cafeteria and will be socially distanced, so they do not have to wear masks at lunchtime. The district plans to stagger recess periods and give students additional opportunities to go without their masks.

Denning also addressed what would happen in the event that someone comes back positive for COVID-19 within the district.

“If somebody comes back positive in a classroom, and everyone socially distanced and wore masks, quarantine is not necessary based on the current guidelines,” said the board president. “If proper PPE is worn, it is not considered a positive exposure. It is only considered a positive exposure in this moment in time, if you were not wearing a mask and were exposed to someone who was COVID positive.”

Lommerin said that parents would be notified of any positive COVID cases. Students would not be penalized for sick time during any quarantine period.

The board discussed putting together an information seminar to provide families with more details concerning reopening plans. Lommerin has already started a committee of teachers to work out the logistics and plans to add a few parents.

 “We want to get the stakeholders to the table to hear their voices,” said Lommerin.

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