BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ — It’s been almost a year since district schools first switched to remote instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But based on comments from Superintendent Melissa Varley, who spoke during the Citizen's Hearing at the Feb. 25 Board of Education meeting, there’s reason to believe a return to academic normalcy isn’t too far away.

In response to a resident's question about plans for the opening of school in September, Varley said, “My hope is we're back in school full-day before the end of this year. I know it's a high hope and a high goal, but I am aiming for that, and we'll see how it turns out.” She went on to say, "We never thought the pandemic was going to last this long, and my goal is to start off September in-person, in-school and ready to go.”

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In other good news, Board Secretary and Schools Businesses Administrator said the district has received grant money as part of a second round of CARES aid.

The CARES Act, or the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) was legislation passed by the federal government in March 2020. The CARES Act Education Stabilization Fund's purpose  is to provide direct aid to districts and education agencies affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We just recently received notification that we've received money from the second CARES grants,” said School Business Administrator and Board Secretary Donna Felezzola. “We've got approximately $270,000 for regular district spending, not earmarked for anything specific.”

Additionally, Felezzola said the district received two additional “allocations” of funding. The first allocation, for “learning acceleration” is for $45,000 and the second allocation, for $25,000, covers “mental health and wellness initiatives,” explained Felezzola.

She said the money can be used for expenses from as far back as March 2020 up to October 2023. The new influx of federal aid comes after the district used 85 percent of its first CARES money, noted Felezzola.

The district, however, will have to wait to apply to the non-COVID-19 related grant Safe Routes to School (SRTS), after the granting process was disrupted by the pandemic, said Board President Doug Reinstein, The district continues to do all the activities that would qualify the district with the SRTS, and "when the state allows for submissions, we will definitely be right there with our application.  

The Safe Routes to School Grant (SRTS) is a federally funded program administered by the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) that helps finance infrastructure projects that safely connect walking and bike paths to neighborhood schools. 

“Safe Routes to School Grants may be used for infrastructure (construction) projects which encourage and enable students from grades K-8 to safely walk and bike to school within two miles of the school,” according to the New Jersey Safe Routes website.

Infrastructure projects funded by SRTS grants include sidewalks, bike paths, striping, lighting, signals, and traffic-calming improvements.