BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Gov. Phil Murphy announced Wednesday that districts can opt to have schools be all virtual at the beginning of the school year if they cannot meet certain safety standards – but Bridgewater-Raritan Education Association President, and middle school teacher, Laura Kress said she doesn’t think that’s going to change anything here.
Bridgewater-Raritan Interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra announced the district’s plan for a hybrid format beginning in September, with students in the lower grades split into two groups, with one group attending in person Monday and Tuesday and the second group attending on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday will be virtual for everyone, while the district buildings are completely cleaned.
The high school is being split into three groups.
All in-school days will be half days, and students will finish out the day virtually.
Kress said she doesn’t know if the district will reconsider to be all virtual following the governor’s announcement, but, at this point, they have to move forward to be ready with the guidelines they have been given.
“As of now, we don’t have enough teachers going out on leave, and not enough parents keeping their kids remote because we haven’t had enough time to put together a quality program,” she said.
Kress said school at this point is not going to be anything like it used to be, although all staff and administrators are working hard to make it work for the students and staff.
“We are measuring every classroom and every desk, and putting down tape so kids don’t overstep outside of their boxes,” she said. “Some rooms will only get eight students at one time, some maybe up to 11.”
“This is the least optimal situation,” she added.
Kress added that the socialization people have spoken of as being a reason to return to in-person learning will be non-existent.
“There will be no interaction between students because they can’t work closely together,” she said. “And there is no real break, they will be allowed to have a snack, but that’s the only time they can take their masks off.”
At this time, Kress said, her biggest concern is the temperature of the classrooms, most of which in the district don’t have air conditioning. She said she is concerned the heat coupled with the required wearing of masks will be detrimental to the health of the students and staff.
“Rooms are upwards of 85 degrees,” she said. “It’s not the optimal learning experience.”
“My own opinion is that for the first month of school, it is too hot to be inside wearing masks, and people are going to get sick,” she added. “I feel like that is a major issue.”
But, Kress said, she also doesn’t know what shape the district is in in terms of how many teachers might not want to return to in person yet, or how many students will be opting for strictly virtual. Parents were asked to officially tell the district their decisions this week, so the numbers are not readily available.
“A lot of people are debating whether they will go virtual or not,” she said. “They don’t want to lock themselves in because if you opt out and then change your mind, you can’t come back right away. Many people are going to start with opting in.”
“We could start school and teachers could take a leave on a two-day notice because it’s an emergency,” she added. “The governor is not making a decision based on the overall plan, he’s putting everyone in a position to be behind the 8-ball.”
Kress said teachers don’t know at this point if they are training to teach virtually, or if they will definitely need to plan to come back in a hybrid system with classes that are only 30 minutes long. Plus, the district is short on some of the technology needed to make it fair for everyone.
“Where do we put our energy, because maybe by October, we’ll have to go on remote, and we never got ourselves up to snuff because we were focusing on the hybrid schedule,” she said.
Kress said work in the classroom will also be especially difficult because it will be nearly impossible to facilitate interactions between the students in the classroom and the ones at home, particularly because the district is not one-to-one when it comes to technology. So, she said, some of the students in the buildings will not have access to their own computers, while most students at home will.
“Different cohorts will not be on the same platforms at the high school,” she said. “You can’t partner with someone at home and be in school.”
Wednesdays, when the entire district is virtual, will be the only time students will mostly be on a level playing field.
“Socialization is more likely to happen this time around remotely than the way the guidelines are set up,” she said.
But right now, as the district figures out how many students will be opting out and how many teachers will really be in person, they are in a holding pattern, Kress said, waiting on the particulars to be figured out.
“We’re working with the administration through these issues to make it safe for everyone,” she said. “We’re still not where we have all the finite details worked out or the impact of how one movement affects another.”
Kress, herself, said she is a fan of continuing remote learning, even though she, like everyone else, would much prefer to be teaching in the classroom.
“I do believe the safest, most functional way would be to have a virtual first marking period, even half a marking period, so we can make sure all these things are worked out,” she said. “We have to have time to think through how one change affects another.”