BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Interim Superintendent of Schools Thomas Ficarra started in the district July 1, just two days after the state released guidance to school districts on school reopenings for September – and he jumped right into the fray.

The schedule for the district to reopen for students in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic was to have a plan presented to the district and residents by Aug. 3.

“I never would have suggested that was the right length of time for the districts to reconfigure everything,” Ficarra said, “and go through 143 pages of guidance.”

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But, Ficarra said, he was able to rely on an “extremely competent staff,” who heard the parameters of the regulations and “were off and running.”

The superintendent sets the parameters to move forward, Ficarra said, and then works with supervisors, pandemic response teams, parents, teachers and all other stakeholders to put together a plan, which they presented Aug. 3 to the board of education.

Ficarra said plans were developed, examined and tweaked to do the best they could for students and staff.

“It was a group effort, and I’m sure we still have plenty to work out,” he said. “We have to see if we have any gaps in the plan.”

With the proposals for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, Ficarra said, they came up with three basic alternatives they believed could work.

“But it’s not like we could say that here is what worked in the last pandemic,” he said.

Administrators settled on students in grades kindergarten through eight attending 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 only.

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.

The high school will 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.

Families can also opt to have their children on only virtual learning for the beginning of the year, until November, when they can choose to send their kids in person instead.

The schedule they chose, Ficarra said, was better than the others, based on his and the rest of the team’s knowledge and experience.

“Everyone was surveyed, and this plan was the favorite of most,” he said.

Plus, Ficarra said, the virtual learning day on Wednesday provides a lot of benefits.

“The biggest strength of the virtual Wednesday is cleaning all the buildings, and it’s a way to bring the entire class together,” he said.

As for the half days throughout the week, some residents have questioned how students will check in again in the afternoon when they are dealing with travel time to get home either by bus or other method of transportation.

Ficarra said students will be required to check in by the end of the regular school day, but there is an understanding of travel time needed once they leave the buildings.

The biggest goal for him as interim right now, Ficarra said, is to make the reopening plans work for the students and staff.

“We are building anew under guidelines no one has operated under before,” he said.

Ficarra said the staff learned a lot during the virtual learning at the end of the last school year. Now, they are developing training and new methods to help them in the upcoming school year.

“Curriculum people had time to figure things out, and we are working to improve everything,” he said. “I think people will be impressed with the changes.”

One focus, Ficarra said, will be on more virtual meets so students can speak directly with their teachers, and vice versa.

“We’ll see if this new normal is the new schedule and we are not asked to create something different,” he said. “The governor, in his guidance, said to prepare to go in and out of school, and we are.”