BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ — With partial in-school learning scheduled to start for all grades Oct. 1, a majority of e-mailing commenters to Monday night’s online Board of Education meeting had one consistent question: When will the district resume fulltime in-person learning?

The answer from school leaders: We don’t know.

School lessons resumed Sept. 8 with online education for all grades, but the school leadership asked for a delay in limited in-building education until Oct. 1.

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The school board heard the poignant question about a full reboot from at least 10 people.

Overall, the commenters in the online audience of about 175 cited the emotional toll of children being isolated and apart from their peers. Others said the children were being subjected to too much screen time; one person called it creating an “electronic addiction.”

One told of how their child had broken down when being unable to follow and keep up with the lesson coming across the screen. Another cited “stress eating.”

Parents questioned why other districts were returning faster and more completely than Bernards. "Don’t wait for the state to give the go-ahead," one person said. "It’s up to you."

Superintendent Nick Markarian said there was no formula when schools would expand in-person learning. He said the district was trying to establish a “pattern of success” and strike a balance between bringing back everyone and keeping all healthy.

“We want to see success data before we bring more students back for a longer time,” he said. “I know that is not particularly satisfying, but honestly it’s what we need to do.”

About two-thirds of the approximately 5,000 students in the K-12 district have chosen the “blended learning” option and will return for part of the week starting Oct. 1. Elementary students will be in the building for two or three days a week, with middle and high schoolers attending for two days a week. The students will be split into two groups to reduce the number of people in the building and encourage as much social distancing as possible. 

In fact, some return to school buildings began yesterday, Tuesday, Sept. 22, when about one-half of the grades K-3 children who chose the option re-entered their buildings for the first time since March, when schools shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Markarian said he was going to be “super excited” to see “those big yellow boxes on wheels” on the road and students in schools.

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.

The administrative team reviewed progress on the Return to Instruction plan, with an emphasis on details that will be need to be followed, like forms for daily health checks and attendance. The need for computer authentication was emphasized to protect security for online lessons.

Staffing to fill vacancies continues, said Assistant Superintendent Sean Siet. There is still a need for substitute teachers and aides, and contractor Aramark must fill five janitorial vacancies, he said.

About 1,200 Chromebooks have been lent to students for use at home, to the point where the district has exhausted its supply, Markarian said. The next order is not expected until March, he said. The district is looking for specific types of devices, so not to be overwhelmed with repair differences and the need for different types of power adapters.