BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ -- School board members in their scattered homes around Bernards Township gathered electronically Monday night to hold a “virtual,” but official, Board of Education meeting.
The historic 90-minute Board of Education session was just one precaution being taken to counter the worldwide COVID-19, or coronavirus, outbreak. Nationwide, businesses have closed or and groups of more than 50 are discouraged. Bernards schools have shut down through March 29, at least, as just one example of “social distancing” aimed at slowing the spread of the respiratory disease.
Learning is still going on, though, through computerized lessons and communication between students and staff. The New Jersey education department has authorized such distance education to count toward the required 180 days of instruction in a school year.
Students have been assigned to log in on their computers at home daily to follow lessons assigned to them by cyber-connected teachers.
The main agenda item Monday was to hear Board Secretary Rod McLaughlin describe the proposed 2020-21 school budget, which was available to be followed on a separate link.
The board introduced a $107 million budget that increases by two percent over the current year. A public hearing is planned to be held at the William Annin Middle School at 7 p.m. Monday, May 4.
General operating expenses will rise to $99.55 million. The total budget increases by $2.1 million, with two-thirds of the increase in salaries. A 1.89 percent increase in local property taxes is projected.
As many as about 40 people, including the participants, were logged onto Monday’s live-streamed meeting at any one time. Questions from the public were taken by email or text.
Melanie DuPuis, co-president of the teachers’ association, thanked the staff for its adaptation to the new reality of teaching and said she was “blown away” by the hard work of staff and administrators, and the grit of students.
A parent emailed to ask for more information about one area of special education spending.
Under the distance learning system, which began Monday, attendance must be submitted through the Genesis computer portal for each child each day by 8:30 a.m. District staff will be running reports every morning and contacting families who have not reported their child as present or absent.
Websites with the learning activities are called “Distance Learning Hubs,” with one for each school. On each grade level or course site, a student will find the link to the teacher and the assignment, directions to access the learning activities, and how and when teachers will provide online help. PowerPoints, videos, and additional resources may be used in support.
There may be practice problems and ways for students to demonstrate they have completed each lesson. Children must complete learning activities daily; however, in general, there is no set time or place like there is during the normal school day.
A primary method of communication will be email – to and from the teacher and support staff.
At Monday’s “meeting,” board member Jennifer Korn said she and her children were impressed with the system. She said her children “found “real work,” and not just activities they could “blow off.”
Korn and fellow member Jennifer White said they were impressed, too, with the emails back and forth with teachers. Vice President Robin McKeon said her children found it a positive experiment. Member Lauren Beckman said she was glad to see the 8:30 a.m. start, meaning that children could get a little more sleep.
Superintendent Nick Markarian on Monday night praised the staff for working hard to devise the long-distance system – which he called “like building an airplane in midair” -- and thanked the community for its positive, encouraging remarks and e-mails.
“We feel each other’s pain and we try to lift each other up,” he said. “It’s a time to support each other and to show each other a lot of grace and patience.”
At the same time, he reminded students to be sensitive in how they talk online, just as they would be courteous in public. He asked they be respectful in language and not use cameras or pictures inappropriately – rules they agreed to when signing onto their school Genesis account.
In a letter posted on the district website on Sunday, Markarian asked students and parents to be patient.
“Remember that we are in uncharted territory; staff will be working all manner of times and hours to make this endeavor a success,” he wrote. “Many staff will be taking risks, trying new things for the first time and putting it all out on the web for people to see, so please be gracious, forgive the mistakes and celebrate the successes.”
In recognition of the challenging time, he said, the school counseling department has created a Virtual Relaxation Room and encouraged students, staff, and parents to visit for a break when they need it.