BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Schedules are in place for the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District’s re-opening in September, with alternating days of instruction, as approved Monday by the board of education.
Interim superintendent of schools Thomas Ficarra delivered a presentation at the school board’s online meeting about reopening schools during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and what a typical, restructured in-school day might look like at the elementary/middle and high school levels. Prior to his presentation, school board president Jackie Barlow cautioned that this was not a pandemic response plan, but a means of addressing schedules for the fall, with the next layer of detail regarding health and safety to be presented to the board in the coming weeks.
Ficarra reiterated part of what he had discussed at the previous board meeting in July, how the Bridgewater-Raritan district had been given over 140 pages of COVID-related guidelines by state officials and the governor’s office from which to develop a plan in just four weeks to potentially reopen schools in September. The district’s buildings have been closed to students since March as the pandemic became widespread, with subsequent educational instruction taking place entirely online.
“We were given a very short period of time,” said Ficarra, “to review guidelines, and had four weeks to notify parents.”
Ficarra said school classrooms in the district are being re-arranged to allow 6 feet of distance between the edges of student desks, and also 6 feet between student chairs. He later said that there will also be will feet of separation between teachers and their students.
He said the 6-foot social distancing measure has been what has driven the district’s decision-making “more than any other factor.” School hallways will also employ one-way directions, much like some stores and supermarkets, or pairs of one-way lanes.
The district considered three potential schedules for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, utilizing parental and other input. Administrators settled on the third available choice, with students in those grade levels to attend school two days in a row, either on Monday and Tuesday (the “AA” group) or Thursday and Friday (the “BB” group).
Wednesdays will consist of virtual and online education, similar to the end of each school day, following an early dismissal.
Wednesdays will also allow for deep cleaning and disinfection of school buildings.
On the days they are in school, students will receive four hours of in-class instruction per day before they are dismissed, with no lunch or recess periods held.
Ficarra added that the district’s central staff, along with the school pandemic teams, had developed the different schedule proposals by utilizing internal experience and by having discussions with colleagues in the state, plus by paying attention to what is being done around the nation. He also said that most parents chosen the AA-virtual/Wednesday-BB model, as had school principals, with a major contributing factor being the separation of the two groups by one day that would be used for deep cleaning of primary/middle school classrooms, along with buses.
Assistant superintendent Karen Jones said that virtual Wednesdays will “give teachers the opportunity to have the two groups together.”
As for Bridgewater-Raritan High School, Ficarra said a schedule that would have permitted 50 percent of those students to be in the building had not worked out because it conflicted with the 6-foot social distancing measure, with students and their desks at that level also being physically larger in size.
“We double-checked to find more space,” said Ficarra. “We were trying to have the district on one schedule.”
Ficarra later said the district was unable to find a comprehensive high school cohort unless it reduced classes to a basic core, devoid of Advanced Placement or honors classes and other such courses, which he didn’t recommend.
The high school will instead feature three schedule groups, with two days of in-school instruction per group, while rotating groups on different Mondays. Students will have nine periods of learning per week, four per each of their two days in school, but with no fifth period for lunch.
On days when one high school group is in the building, the others will have virtual learning.
“Each group will be following along with the same lessons,” Ficarra said.
As for special education students, that instruction will be for grades from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, including related services such as speech, occupational and physical therapy. Personal aides, if included in student IEPs (individualized education plans), will be granted full PPE (personal protective equipment) measures, including masks, shields, gowns and gloves, which they will also be allowed to swap out during the course of the day for replacements if need be.
As for those students whose parents opt out of in-person learning for their children and wish them to have them continue solely with virtual learning, Ficarra said the governor has tasked districts to “provide the same quality” of education as their counterparts who return to the buildings. Some form of Google Meet will be utilized to provide those online lessons, with opt-out information to be provided to the public.
If students are signed up for in-person instruction, they could opt-out at any time if they are uncomfortable, as it will not affect the 6-foot spacing in classrooms. Conversely, those who initially choose virtual learning will have to wait until the first marking period ends on Nov. 15 to switch to in-person education if they choose.
“We can’t have a ‘moving target’ of how many students are in a class,” said Ficarra.
He also said the district is just working toward Nov. 15 as of now, with the future beyond that still in flux.
Transportation via school buses is another story, as Ficarra admitted that social distancing measures cannot be provided if more than 11 children are on a particular school bus, which is roughly a fifth of the 54-person capacity of most large buses. There is no real option for adding buses, either, as Ficarra also said that “bus drivers are hard to come by in New Jersey.”
Parents would also likely have to sign a waiver for their children to use the buses, as the district is currently dealing with conflicting information from the county, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and other outlets, information that Ficarra said it is “trying to nail down.”
Besides teachers, all students will be required to wear masks in school, per an order given by the governor on Monday, although there might be “mask breaks” allowed for students. Hand sanitizer will be provided in each classroom, while shared objects such as toys at the primary school level will have to be decontaminated between uses.
Personal water bottles will likely be needed in order to make use of water fountains, and Ficarra said the district is also working with the Department of Health, along with local and county health officials, on quarantine protocols. He also said that if COVID-19 cases break out after school is back in session, the district will not identify the individual in question, but could reveal where something has occurred.
“We’re working with medical experts to provide protocols we will adhere to,” said Ficarra.
As for temperature-taking as part of COVID-19 procedures, he said the CDC stated late last month that it did not recommend universal screening at schools, as Ficarra said it could undermine the social distancing measures by creating congregations of individuals within 6 feet of one another.
“We want to explore with the school physicians and county officials before a final protocol,” said Ficarra.
Parents are also being asked to monitor their children for any signs of illness, and, if their children are ill, to not let them attend school in person. Concerning childcare matters, the district’s final approval will be sent to all in-school and out-of school contracted providers.
Save for special education students, in-house childcare is not expected to be provided on Wednesdays when schools will be deep-cleaned, although Ficarra later told Barlow that was being worked on for special education.
Jones said there will be challenges at the high school level. Some classes will be virtual learning only, such as physical education, although she said in response to a question from board member A.J. Joshi that software exists for online laboratory work.
Jones also cautioned that students are not supposed to share materials in art, gym, science or other classes, due to the potential for contamination.
Board vice president Jill Gladstone said she had concerns about the use of chairs and desks in the high school, with students changing classes. Ficarra said it was being looked into providing those students with disinfecting cloths to wipe down those surfaces, as an extra layer of protection in addition to custodial cleaning efforts.
Board member Barry Walker said he had concerns about technology and equipment that would be used by students, and also available bandwidth for online learning purposes. He also asked about making greater use of the Powerschool program, which Ficarra said will be used to not just obtain information, but to export it to each school, which will help in the opt-out process and in predicting class sizes.
Board member Steven Singer asked if an FAQs section could be put up on the district website for the issues that have been discussed, and Ficarra said he would try to break those things down for that purpose. Walker said he believes a graphic representation of the approved school schedules is also needed for public consumption, and he and board member Ann Marie Mead also asked about the situation of vocational-technical students.
Ficarra said that vo-tech students will be taken care of and “not abandoned,” by hand scheduling if necessary, along with out-of-district pupils.
Concerning transportation, Ficarra called it a “double-edged sword,” if more parents opt out of busing to drive their children to and from school, which would free up buses, but also exacerbate school traffic patterns. Mead said it would be “a lot of logistics” if most students were driven to and from school, and Ficarra said local police are now being alerted in order to project potential traffic numbers.
Concerning school fire drills, Ficarra said guidance on that matter is needed from Trenton during the pandemic. He also said the district is “prepared to pivot” with its educational plans if other changes occur due to COVID-19.
“I think we’re pretty prepared,” said Jones. “We have to focus on creating a plan.”
Teachers in the district are being contacted by supervisors this week, and are also being apprised of school schedules, to see which educators might opt out of in-person instruction.
“We need to know the holes in the schedule,” said Ficarra.
He also said that schedules have been constructed for the district to “immediately go back” to normal instruction if the pandemic should come to an end.
The public portion of Monday night’s meeting lasted just under 15 minutes, with the board displaying comments from multiple members of the public online. Many wanted specific answers to questions, such what would happen if someone in the district tested positive for COVID-19 while school was in session, if staff had to appropriate its own PPE, or what types of disinfectants would be used in buses and classrooms.
Some questions had been previously answered during the meeting, although the board did not publicly answer any queries, specific or otherwise, during the public session.
The board ultimately approved the proposed schedules by an 8-0 margin.