BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The schools within the Berkeley Heights School District welcomed students back to school into a never-before-seen schooling model in town.

The district, which is operating under “Plan B”, allowed students throughout the district to step back into school for the first time since March when the governor's COVID-19 executive order forced school districts across New Jersey to close buildings and teach remotely. Due to a shortage of available teachers, Gov. Livingston High School is currently operating under a full-virtual model.

As previously reported by TAPinto, the Berkeley Heights Board of Education laid out their official re-opening plan at the July 30 meeting. Dr. Melissa Varley, Superintendent of schools, shifted gears from her originally slated plan “A” and recommended at the August 10 meeting to begin the school year with plan “B” instead. 

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The decision driven, she said in part, by Governor Murphy's decision to "limit occupancy to no more than 25 people in any given indoor space" because of New Jersey's increasing transmission rate.

Dr. Varley said the governor has left school systems in a state of upheaval and had decided individual superintendents and boards of education should decide whether schools in their towns are safe to open. As part of her decision-making process, the teaching staff was surveyed, she said. “When asked which physical return to school plan was preferred, 90 percent of our teaching staff preferred Plan B, with the remaining 10 percent preferring Plan A,” Varley wrote in an email to parents sent Monday, Aug. 10.  

A shortage of teachers within the district, in particular at Gov. Livingston, has prompted a major change in opening plans in the district. Gov. Livingston will go to all remote instruction on Tuesday, Sept. 8, but before that each of the Plan B groups -- Group A and Group B -- will attend in-person sessions to meet the teachers and pick up materials. 

Before schools shut down in March, students at Gov. Livingston were able to have a “normal” high school education -- now, that is a different story. TAPinto spoke to a few Gov. Livingston students to give their perspective on remote learning. 

Hannah Befeler, a freshman at Gov. Livingston, said one of her fears is that “I may never have a real high school experience. COVID could end tomorrow, or in a week from now, but it could also end in ten years. I may never go into that high school and learn the way I always have -- in person.” 

As many students fear they might miss out on a "normal" high school experience, Befeler also expressed her concerns for receiving a satisfactory education. Befeler said, “Virtual school, for me at least, during the end of the year last year was a struggle and it was harder for me to learn and there were more distractions. Learning in the classroom felt easier and I had more opportunities to ask for help.”

Similarly to Befeler, Gov. Livingston freshman Kate Cacicedo said, “When I started the summer Mathspace, I really had a hard time. It’s going to be really hard to learn as much as we should online. And staying focused and engaged from 7:40 a.m. to 2:50 p.m. every day is going to be nearly impossible.”

While virtual learning will never be the exact same experience as in-person learning, Dr. Varley said she is working with schools and supervisors to ensure each student receives an adequate education. She said, “All the principals, supervisors and directors have met to come up with guidelines that they will be monitoring to make sure that teachers are getting live interaction and live instruction.”

Teachers within the district were also offered optional virtual-class training. Teachers are not under contract during summer months, therefore, teachers were not required to take this training but encouraged to as a good option. 

Cacicedo talked of the struggle between achieving both mental health and physical health for students during these unprecedented times. She said, “As for safety, people are saying that the virus might get worse in the colder weather too, so online school is probably safer for physical health but worse for mental health. People need to have social interactions.”

Dr. Varley also commented to Cacicedo’s point saying that since the district has met the requirements for safety and an “acceptable amount of risk of COVID-19, I am much more concerned about mental health. We know in surrounding towns, during the pandemic, there have been a few children who have committed suicide. So, I do believe that mental health trumps COVID. My own children are going in person. And it's because they need it for their emotional well-being.”

When asked whether she felt her voice was being heard by the school district, Cacicedo said, “I strongly believe that students had almost no say in the decision. -- They [the 17 teachers who filed for leave forcing GL into a full virtual option] are the reason we are online, not because of safety concerns. -- I feel like those teachers were the only ones who had a say.”

Similar to Cacicedo, Brianna Cagan, a senior at Gov. Livingston and a strong advocate for going back to school in-person, spoke at the July 30th BOE meeting to ask for one thing, "to be heard." 

During her prepared speech in front of the Board and over 350 guests, Cagan said, “ I want to go back to school, but to say please send us back solely based on the fact that school would be more difficult or because I like it is selfish and wrong in itself.”

Cagan said the lack of a normal school environment was “very difficult for me, the complex and high-level classes I took were extremely difficult to understand over Zoom while being sure to hold myself to the same academic standards that I have.”

About a week before the July 30th meeting, all parents who have children enrolled in Berkeley Heights Public Schools received a survey about what plan they would like for the upcoming school year. Cagan acknowledged this survey and said, “I'm here to ask one thing of the Board of Education, I want to say, we've been taught throughout our entire academic journey to advocate for ourselves, and in almost every subject how to form a grounded opinion supported by credible evidence on every topic under the sun, however, when it comes to what happens to us in our school, we were left out.”

Cagan passionately went as far as to provide the district with options on how to communicate with their students. She said, “Something as simple as a Google Form with a few questions on our thoughts can make each student feel slightly in control of everything that has become out of their control.”

Cagan finished by saying, "This is your opportunity as a Board of Education to show the students of Governor Livingston and even Columbia Middle School that we are more than a number, a statistic or test score, but that we're real people to you -- thoughts and opinion count.”

When asked why students weren’t polled, Dr. Varley said it was an “oversight” within trying to get students back into school and that she does “believe that students’ voices are important.” Dr. Varley noted she has talked to students personally about their thoughts, and also plans on creating student committees and to send out Google surveys to students. However, no official plan in regard to student insight has been laid out by Dr. Varley or the Board of Education. 

Dr. Varley noted the hardest part about re-opening schools is “getting the school buildings ready for something we've never done before.” All schools within New Jersey are required to meet minimum safety criteria before being allowed to open. While many community member have varying opinions on whether schools should be open, Dr. Varley said, “We don't have health and safety standard issues, we must open in person. And that is the reason to push to get GL to open in person as well. The DOE (Department of Education) says we don't have safety issues, so we have to be in person.”

Similarly to students, teachers, and staff within the Berkeley Heights school district felt as though their voices were not being heard in the reopening decision. The district has no legal obligation to poll its staff nor students. 

In a published letter on TAPinto, members of the Berkeley Heights Education Association (BHEA) said, “The BHEA conducted a survey of its members from Friday, July 31 to Tuesday, August 4 to obtain their opinion on the publicly released reopening plans developed for selection by the Berkeley Heights Board of Education. The Berkeley Heights Board of Education did not survey its employees prior to selecting a reopening plan at their July 30 meeting.” [Editor's note: The BHEA survey results are from 140 of their 362 members that participated in the survey.]

While it is clear the school year will be anything but “normal”, the Berkeley Heights school district continues to work to bring their students and staff, high education, and safety together. A final note to the community, Dr. Varley said, “I think being kind and being flexible -- understanding we’re all under a great deal of pressure -- everyone is working together to make it happen and take care of all of these kids.”

Editor's Note: Aidan English is a junior at Gov. Livingston High School participating in the TAPinto Berkeley Heights student internship program. To learn more, email Bobbie Peer at bpeer@tapinto.net.