BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District is continuing its training in hopes of returning students to classrooms on at least a part-time basis in just a few weeks.

“We’re ready and excited about opening in the near future,” said superintendent Thomas Ficarra.

He said the district will not stop its work on virtual teaching, which it has used since mid-March when COVID-19 became widespread. He said that will continue into October and through the rest of the school year, and will offer a variety of experiences for local students.

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Training for the hybrid education model, an amalgam of virtual and in-person instruction that the district hopes to employ starting Oct. 12, is being provided to all staff members, including simulations.

Ficarra said elementary teaching specialists are being trained in hybrid teaching methods, as if they were students, and are being given opportunities to ask questions and also provide feedback and support. Staff members will also practice using laptops along with desktop computers and smart boards, among other communication devices.

He added that professional development for educators will continue all this school year.

“It’s an ongoing process,” said Ficarra.

He admitted that the in-person instructional model is the best one to use, and that the district is continuing to work on building a suitable hybrid model for its students.

“I’m convinced that we, and they, will be successful,” he said.

He thanked all those who have “upped the level of instructional practice.”

School board president Jackie Barlow said the district’s tentative return to in-person hybrid instruction will include “phased returns,” such as Oct. 5 for special education students, plus the Oct. 12 expected start date for the general student population.

A final decision is expected by the start of the month, unless unforeseen issues arise.

“We’re doing what has never been done before,” said Barlow.

She also gave a shout out to district administrators, teachers and staff members for working to make online and hybrid education a success.

“From the board, thank you,” she said.

Several members of the public expressed thanks and concerns for the online educational model that has been employed since September started.

Parent Stacey Friedlander told the board and district administration that she is "still very concerned about the hybrid model" at the elementary level, and wants to know how teachers will "address educational needs in the classroom in person" while still bearing responsibility for hybrid lessons.

"Can you please provide more information about the move to hybrid?" asked parent Elyse Wulff. "Has the BOE looked to other local districts that are already in a hybrid model to see what is working and what is not working?"

Parent Michelle Lynch said she "commended and applauded" Bridgewater's teachers, especially at Hamilton Primary School, calling them "the real superheroes," although she did have questions about aftercare.

"Will this service be equitably afforded at all elementary schools, or will this not be addressed at all?" She asked.

Parents, and board of education candidate, Jessica Levitt also commended district educators for the "excellent job" they have been doing with virtual learning this fall, and said she knows it had been "a difficult decision to start the school year this way."

She said she also hoped that professional development opportunities will continue for district staff, and that they will have paid time for collaboration and resource sharing.

"I have seen some really excellent use of technology by several of my children's teachers, and I hope they are all supported in working together to lighten the load of completely reinventing their classrooms," she said.

"The pandemic has presented many challenges, but it is also affording us the opportunity to look at new ways of doing things and improving our already excellent schools," she added. "For example, our middle and high school are using a rotating block schedule out of necessity. It allows us to see how that does and doesn't work, and evaluate our scheduling going forward."

Board member Steven Singer asked about a synchronous education model for the middle and high schools, and if they will extend to the entire district.

Ficarra said they will, and that there are several factors involved in the staffing model, including those students and teachers who had opted out of returning to school in person, which could create an imbalance in staffing and a requirement for additional personnel.

Ficarra also said the district has to be prepared to pivot back to all virtual learning “without switching teachers,” if need be, as much as pivoting from virtual to hybrid/in-person learning.

“The current model will do that,” said Ficarra. “We’re working with staff, kindergarten through 12.”