BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District will continue with online instruction for at least the first month of the new school year, as officially approved Tuesday.
Interim superintendent Thomas Ficarra gave an FAQs update on the district’s plans to start the 2020-2021 academic year completely online, a decision that had been announced last week.
Ficarra said the decision to switch to a full virtual school model from Sept. 8 to Oct. 9, as opposed to using the hybrid model that had been developed earlier this summer, had not been based on any kind of prediction or opinion about the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) that has physically shuttered schools since mid-March of this year.
“The complexity of the compliance with the governor’s road map caused uncertainties, with changes and moving parts,” said Ficarra, who joined the district on July 1. “Many things are still unsettled, and if we did not have an absolute handle on every aspect, we could not call our children back to school safely.”
He mentioned the 143 pages of guidelines given to New Jersey school systems by Gov. Phil Murphy in late June, with plans due back by Aug. 3. That basically gave Bridgewater-Raritan roughly the month of July to implement a back-to-school plan for the district’s 11 school buildings and approximately 8,600 students.
“People need to understand, the guidance was very specific as to how schools would operate,” said Ficarra. “The specifics were laid out in the (governor’s) June 29 plan.”
He pointed out that the district had full supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), and related items such as sanitizer on hand, but that other changes had taken place since the district had developed preliminary plans to return local students to their schools on at least a part-time basis starting in September.
“I don’t think we had enough time to develop a plan,” he said.
He said the district’s decision not to fully re-open next month had been based on compliance with different sets of guidelines from several different entities throughout the state and the nation, including the governor and his “Road Back,” the New Jersey Department of Health, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Somerset County health official.
Ficarra said guidelines had changed, while still more are forthcoming. At one point, the district had been prepared to take students’ temperatures before they entered the schools, but then the CDC and the state health department revealed three weeks ago that student temperatures should not be taken by the schools.
Other measures are now being worked on, with parents potentially asked to take their children’s temperatures in the mornings and then upload that information to Powerschool.
“The guidance came late,” said Ficarra, “and never stops shifting.”
The paramount guideline measure was 6-foot social distancing at all times and in all places. There was also reduced building capacity to 50 percent for pre-kindergarten to eighth grade students, and reduced building capacity to 30 percent at Bridgewater-Raritan High School.
The social distancing measure extended to classrooms and student desk configurations, reducing the capacity in at least primary school classrooms from 25 student desks to 11 desks.
The district had considered several potential schedules for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, through various means of input, such as surveys. It had settled on a selection where students in those grades would attend school two days in a row, either Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday, with Wednesdays to consist of virtual education.
The high school would feature three schedule groups, including two days of in-school instruction per group, while also rotating groups on different Mondays. Those scheduling plans were scrapped, at least temporarily, following the district’s recent decision to start the new school year on a purely virtual basis.
Technology needs were also increased with the move back to 100 percent virtual learning. That included moving 1,000 computers out of the elementary schools for needy students, which also engendered a logistical round of picking up, dropping off and cleaning and sanitizing devices.
The district also entertained implementing BYOD, or Bring Your Own Device, for those high school students who have their own laptops or tablets, which would necessitate establishing firewalls.
As for medical training when the buildings ultimately reopen, there would be an initial meeting review of standing orders from a physician to the school nurses, which also highlighted the need for additional medical training for staff. Unresolved questions included determining safe passage through buildings for students who are ill at school, along with the usage and cleaning of an isolation room for those students.
Measures included the taping of hallways, and installing signage for social distancing purposes, and the movement of unneeded furniture out of classrooms and into storage, including some 2,500 pieces at the high school that still need to be moved at this point. There were also ventilation questions, plus heat and face mask issues for young children.
“More and more areas needed to be ironed out,” said Ficarra.
He added that the increase in problems to solve at the micro level had put more pressure on the district to make the decision it ultimately did.
“We need more time to comply with the guidance,” he said.
As for staff, the district had received more than 200 written requests from teachers who sought accommodations to teach virtually, or to go on leave. Other neighboring districts being closed had also put more pressure on Bridgewater-Raritan staff, and resulted in 140 additional opt-out and accommodation requests.
Those opt-outs and accommodations had not been equally distributed, and required shifting of personnel in both areas.
As for students, a survey in late July noted that 25 percent of district parents wanted their children to only attend school virtually. That number grew to 41 percent by mid-August, with one unnamed school building having 66 percent of its students opt out of in-school instruction.
The district was also burdened with having to sort out student identities, as some e-mails requesting opt-outs did not include much information past a last name, in a school system that features some 2,700 students at the high school level alone.
“We want to bring back students safely,” said Ficarra, “and without complexities.”
He said he was heartened by the fact that district administrators, teachers and staff generally seemed to be approaching the situation with a “can do” attitude. He also said in response to a board question that getting approval from the state to go to all-online learning for next month was mostly a paper formality.
“We’re doing the best we can,” said Ficarra. “We’re moving forward at full speed, and we ask for your patience.”
Not all members of the public were pleased with the district’s decision to go fully virtual for at least the first month of the new school year.
“Can we please move on from the bullying topic and talk about opening the schools?” asked parent Jessica Mancini during the first public portion of the meeting, referring to an earlier presentation on HIB incidents in the schools. “Our kids are suffering from lack of social enrichment and we are wasting time on this topic. There is no bullying if the schools aren’t open. Please refocus.”
“When can the schools open?” asked parent Jerry Scott. “Cases are down, the governor said we can open. Open the schools, move on from this topic.”
He asked if students with special needs will receive one-on-one attention at any point during the revamped school day, and if aides will be assisting one-on-one in any way with those students’ instruction.
Parent John Galardino said he wants the school board to change its current method of soliciting input from the public at its meetings.
“Open this up for live questions,” he said. “We need answers on when these kids get back to school.”
Parent Shawn Scriffiano, though, thanked the district for its efforts in this unusual time.
“Thank you for everyone’s hard work (board members, teachers, case managers, therapists)” he said.