BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ — More than 550 computers were tuned in Wednesday night as the Bernards Township Board of Education heard and debated the intricacies of reopening school this September while the COVID-19 virus still plaques the state.
A panel of health experts discussed health concerns and issues in the first 90 minutes of the four-hour Live streamed meeting. Any reopening would require everyone using masks, social distancing and increased sanitizing procedures, at the least.
School administrators discussed different schedules for reopening, but seemed to gravitate to a “blended” schedule in which students would attend class in physical buildings for part of the week, and be expected to learn remotely at home for other hours.
Superintendent Nick Markarian said state and national guidelines to reopen are changing daily, so Bernards’ plans were set “in wet concrete, at best.” He said the district wanted as much in-school instruction as could be safely implemented for the 5,000 students and more than 800 staff members.
School board President Karen Gray said it was apparent to her that parents wanted more live instruction than the three months of distance learning with which the district ended the school year.
Markarian noted the process was complex, with each decision taking “astronomical time and energy.” He said, “We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.”
Assistant Superintendent Kristin Fox described scenarios in which students might be split into A and B groups by some method, with middle and high schoolers in the building for two days a week, learning from home two days and working on their own or having conferences with teachers on Wednesdays. Students in need of the greatest attention would be brought to school every day and taught in small groups, Markarian said.
Scenarios were sketched for elementary schools. In one, children would attend either alternate days or in morning/afternoon three-hour sessions, with an hour break for cleaning of the school in the intermission. In another, the class would be split in half attending two days a week, with remote learning on Wednesdays.
Markarian said he hoped the board could make some firm recommendations at the next “virtual” meeting on Monday, July 20.
More than three dozen questions from the public were read or summarized. Markarian replied to some, and said the administration would compile a “frequently asked questions” memo that would be posted on the school website.
The school faces a community in which a vast majority wants the buildings to reopen, but has a significant minority hesitant to commit to returning.
In a survey of staff in June, 460 of the 545 who responded said they intended to return to buildings. That left 85 staffers (about 15 percent) desiring to work remotely.
The board will have to deal with how to approve or deny leaves for staffers who had concerns about their health or exposure to their families, child care issues or coordinating work schedules with the school district in which they lived.
In a survey of parents compiled this week, parents of more than 80 percent of students said they intended to send their children back for in-person instruction. There were about 950 responses to the online survey.
About 250 comments concerned the need for better instruction than the spring lessons. About one in six said their children may need a Chromebook device if distance learning was used.
The survey asked if children would ride a school bus, another health concern for the district. Fifteen percent said no, even though their student was eligible. About 18 percent said they would drive their child, if that would help. More than 40 percent of students aren’t eligible for busing because they live too close to their school building.
If distance learning was used, teachers and administrators have been talking since May about how to have more live instruction, increase teacher and pupil accountability to attend and do the work, and how to train teachers over the summer.
Among other questions were athletics, whether clubs and co-curricular activities could be held, before- and after-school care and how to accommodate both part-time and fulltime vocational education students.
Local and regional health officials discussed the imperative for three W’s -- wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance – that must be observed in any school reopening.
Led by district nursing supervisor Rita Zarabara, the panel of school physician Matthew Speesler, township health officer Lucy Forgione, township Board of Health member Dr. John Salaki and Dr. Susan Coffin of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia discussed social distance guidelines. How far apart is enough? Are masks better than face shields? Can barriers be erected?
Dr. Salaki emphasized that COVID-19 is a respiratory virus spread by coughs and sneezes as much as fresh droplets on metal, plastic, cardboard, wood and other hard surfaces. There was discussion on how long and far aeriolized droplets stay in the air.
If masks are used, they must cover the nose, the medical experts said, for the virus attacks the mucus membranes as a gateway to the respiratory system.
The panel said the school board must adopt policies on how to deal with anyone who comes down with the virus, and how it would affect the conduct of school.
They discussed whether taking staffers and students’ temperatures every day would be effective in finding anyone potentially ill. There was a practical question of how that could be done at school, or whether parents should be tasked with that responsibility.
In the state’s Restart and Recovery plan, school districts must adopt more strenuous cleaning and disinfecting procedures.
Eating times will likely be staggered to allow for social distancing and disinfecting of the cafeteria between groups. No family-style, self-service, and buffet-style dining will be allowed.
For recess and physical education, an inventory of outdoor spaces should mark off areas to ensure separation between students. Recess must be staggered by groups and staff must disinfect playground equipment and shared equipment between uses.
Locker rooms may be closed and students encouraged to wear comfortable clothing and safe footwear to school so they can participate in physical education without needing to change.