BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ — Bernards Township parents will be asked in the next few days to choose how they want their children to be schooled this fall.

Parents have two options. They could select a “blended schedule” with children physically attending their school building part of the time, with at-home learning the other three days a week.

Or they could opt to have their children work at home entirely, with 100-percent virtual learning five days a week.

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The Board of Education heard the “Road Back” on Thursday night in a nearly four-hour virtual meeting that attracted people on more than 750 computers.

The dual option is a response to the state’s charge to return students and staff members for as much in-school instruction that can be safely implemented.

Superintendent Nick Markarian said safety is the utmost priority for the district, with instruction right behind. One facet of in-school instruction will be mandatory daily health screenings.

Bernards Township, like all schools in New Jersey, is trying to educate children while keeping the COVID-19 pandemic in mind.

District leaders have an idea what to expect to hear from parents. In about 950 responses to a survey in recent weeks, parents of more than 80 percent of students said they intended to send their children for in-person instruction. That would leave about 20 percent choosing on-line learning.

In order to go from general idea to detailed plan, the district will ask parents to make that choice. They should do so cautiously, Markarian said, with the idea they are making a commitment, not just indicating a preference. There may be only limited opportunities – like the end of a trimester for elementary grades and semester break for middle and high schoolers -- to have children switch from one form of instruction to another.

He said the district would like responses back by the end of July.

 In the “blended” plan, students would be divided into two random groups. One group would be in their buildings for Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other on Thursdays and Fridays. (Families with children in two or more schools will be accommodated.) The days would end about noontime and would be about the same length as abbreviated schedules for bad weather or staff training days.

On Wednesdays, middle and high school students would have a nine-period day of about 30 minutes classes all taught remotely. The A and B groups in elementary schools would alternate coming to school on Wednesdays. 

Students in need of the greatest attention would be brought to school every day and taught in small groups. How to accommodate both part-time and fulltime vocational education students will be addressed individually. Afternoons will be dedicated to online tutorials, other recorded lessons and contact between students and teachers.

Markarian noted the process was complex, with each decision taking much time, energy and planning.

There were ways parents could help, he said. Parents who said they drive their children to school could lessen the burden on busing and enable social distancing on buses. Parents could also invest in a thermometer to take children’s temperatures before they send them off to school. And they could create a designated work space for children to use the computer and work at home.

The school environment will be vastly different, too, with all staff and students required to wear masks, furniture arranged to encourage space between people, minimum time in hall passing and health screenings.

Hand hygiene will be stressed. The district is installing as fast as possible – deliveries have been delayed, in some instances – touchless faucets, automatic soap dispensers and no-touch paper towel machines.

For the start of school, there will be no club meetings, few if any science labs, no chance for in-season athletes to opt out of gym class in favor of a study hall, no lunch service and no before/after school care, said Markarian.

Longer school days, more students in buildings and loosened restrictions will be considered only as health conditions improve, he said.

Distance instruction will be conducted with more rigor and teacher and student accountability than the three months of remote learning with which the district ended the school year. For instance, attendance will be taken with each class, and not just the start of the day. There will likely be more live instruction.

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.