BERNARDS TWP., NJ — Bernards Township school officials thrashed through dozens of details Monday night on how they will run simultaneous tracks of instruction – in person and online – for a school year that’s just begun.

Education began Sept. 8 entirely online for the approximately 5,000 students, but the district will transition to a hybrid plan Oct. 1, with about two-thirds of the students coming to their school building for two days in a week and learning at home for three. The rest of the students will continue to receive online lessons only.

The unprecedented situation is a result of New Jersey dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has closed schools since mid-March.

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Information about daily procedures, events, forms to be filled out and health precautions is being sent to parents online and through the school website, and is being offered sometimes in small bites, such as one-minute videos covering one topic per day.

First students expected back in classrooms on Sept. 22

The school intends to bring some students back to school prior to Oct. 1. On Tuesday, Sept. 22, in-person hybrid instruction will begin for general education programs in Grades K, 1 and 2, alternating between the designated A and B groups.

The dual track will be the system for the foreseeable future, said Superintendent Nick Markarian, who said he didn’t know when “we get back to the ‘old normal.’”

The school is prepared with transportation and materials, but need to establish a safe track record, he said.

Monday’s meeting covered a maze of details on how to keep the buildings physically safe, prepare for their use while keeping people apart as much as possible, and hire more staff and align those who wish to work virtually. Schools have distributed teaching materials to parents in the past week, and things like back-to-school nights are upcoming virtually.

The delayed in-person start to Oct. 1 was deemed necessary because of staffing shortages, the need to install signs and safety equipment and measures like checking ventilation systems room by room.

District seeking substitute teachers and aides

The district is still in need of substitutes teachers and aides. The work force has been divided by the dual demands of online and in-person instruction, and it spreads out the work force needed in buildings for such tasks as enforcing social distancing, said Markarian.

As of Friday, 37 positions needed to be filled, but hires were made Monday night and more are expected at next Monday’s meeting, according to Assistant Superintendent Sean Siet.

The district wants to add to its roster of substitute teachers and aides. Last week 26 employment kits were picked up and 12 were returned, so there’s hope the slots will be filled soon, said Siet.

The year has been unprecedented with early-year resignations and retirement notices, he said.

An administration presentation covered a range of topics, from snow days to online behavior (harassment, bullying) to upcoming events.

Teachers and students are being asked not to record lessons but the school wants students’ cameras on so teachers can account for the student’s presence throughout the class period. Attendance will be taken first thing in the morning as well as by teachers for each class.

Attendance accountability is an “important piece we’re trying to improve upon from last spring,” said Markarian.

Medical information covered daily absence forms and daily Covid checks, and how to deal with lengthy absences. There is no formula or number of COVID cases that would have to be reached to trigger a school or class shutdown, Markarian said.

In recognition of students preparing to apply to colleges, the school is looking to hire a coordinator for the ACT readiness exam and hopes to offer it to Ridge High students at the end of October. The SAT will be given to RHS students that month, too.

The school will not be able to offer Option 2 in the first marking period, said Ridge Principal Russell Lazovick. The program allows in-season athletes to trade their physical education period for a study hall.

Plans are being organized to welcome incoming freshmen on an introductory visit to the high school Monday, Sept. 21, and sixth graders to the middle school on Sept. 29.

Students are being told of their designated drop-off and pickup locations, which may be different from last year.  Doors may not open 15 minutes early as in previous years, so parents should plan for an 8:30 a.m. opening.

Nursing coordinator Rita Zarabara talked about illnesses, procedures for anyone testing positive for COVID and how to handle students who come into contact with a COVID patient in their household contacts.

There were dozens of comments and questions from the approximately 350 online viewers. 

One student who said too much time on the Chromebook hurt her eyes asked “pretty please with a cherry on top of a big sundae” to get back to in-person learning quickly.

The full day of online classes on Wednesdays is too much computer screen time, said another person.

Teachers were asked to use Google Calendar universally, and there were complaints that teachers were going beyond the designated class length into the transition period between classes. 

One person asked for the board to rethink its decision to disallow neck gaiters. They are more comfortable and versatile than cloth masks, one person said.

People upset with the delay in getting back into school buildings said administrators shouldn’t blame the global supply chain for failure to have facilities prepared. One person even asked Markarian when he would resign.