BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Per state guidelines, schools in Bridgewater and Raritan are being readied for possible re-opening this fall —although much still has to be determined before the local district’s deadline early next month.

Interim Superintendent of Schools Thomas Ficarra gave a lengthy presentation Tuesday, in which he laid out the district’s developing plan to reopen its school buildings, all of which were shuttered in March following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and led to total online learning.

Ficarra’s presentation, titled “The Road Back,” included directives received from the office of the governor and the New Jersey Department of Education on June 29, which stipulated that school districts in the state had just four weeks in which to develop a plan to reopen their buildings and release said plan to the public.

Sign Up for Bridgewater/Raritan Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

“We’re running at a fast pace,” said Ficarra, who took over as interim superintendent on July 1 following the departure of Russell Lazovick.

Ficarra explained that district personnel had roughly a month to “synthesize” 143 pages of guidelines per the governor and DOE, and then to apply their findings to make decisions on how to best re-open Bridgewater-Raritan’s 11 school buildings and welcome back some 8,600 students.

The district studied two models of instruction for the fall. The hybrid model would combine in-person lessons with virtual instruction, with students alternating in-school attendance days every week.

The cohort model would involve identifying similar groups of students and then keeping them together, to help in preventing the coronavirus from spreading.

The process also included the establishment of committees, particularly a restart committee, which had previously been referred to as the September committee. This district-wide team is working with the superintendent on establishing a re-opening plan.

The schools themselves also have pandemic response teams, school-based groups that work with their respective school principals. Ficarra said the pandemic response teams work to develop health and safety protocols; conduct training; and help create communications for the community, families and students to participate in decision-making.

The response teams consist of principals, supervisors, teachers, teaching assistants, school nurses, counselors, child study teams, custodians, school safety personne, and parents.

Ficarra also described the planning process to date, which began in early July with a review of the state’s re-opening guidelines. A local survey was sent out July 6, which he said ultimately garnered more than 6,000 parent responses, and internal guideline meetings were held the next day among school principals, vice principals and supervisors.

“Looking at the (state) guidelines, we had no choice but to do it this way,” said Ficarra, who admitted he would have liked to have had more time.

Principals and their teams developed individual school plans, and also shared ideas with other schools from July 8 through July 13, and feedback from the principals and the surveys were forwarded to the district’s central office around July 13. The central office responded to the school principals over the next two days, while the district’s restart committee met July 16.

Principals then met with the central office team the following day to review potential re-entry plans.

“We provided as much input as we could, from community members,” said Ficarra, who also noted that the state’s directives were not suggestions or a wish list. “The governor’s guidelines are the dominant force by which we have to decide everything.”

Using both the guidelines and the surveys as a basis, the district focused on more specific areas related to in-person learning such as transportation, building entry, educational space, meal services, restroom usage and hallway access.

“We want to assure the public we’re not making this up,” said Ficarra. “The governor’s team is working with health professionals, and providing us guidance we’re adhering to.”

As for health considerations, he said the major one is 6-foot social distancing, a staple of containing COVID-19 symptoms since the virus first broke out in America earlier this year.

“The 6-foot distancing figure drives all our decisions,” he said.

The breakdown of considerations also include daily temperature-taking for students and staff; personal protective equipment (PPE) for students and staff; isolation rooms for individuals who manifest coronavirus symptoms in school; special education and English-language learner (ELL) requirements; external traffic plans for student drop-offs and pickups; and school safety exercises such as fire drills, which would not be reduced or eliminated despite the coronavirus.

“Transportation is a moving target at the moment,” said Ficarra. “We’re not sure who will opt to be on the buses.”

He said that preparation and assistance for special education and ELL students has to be above and beyond that of the general student population, and said there are “layers of complexity.” He also said that school traffic patterns will have to be discussed with the local municipality and the police department.

Health preparations and considerations for the schools also include daily cleaning of buildings; removal and storage of furniture; water fountain usage, which at present is under conflicting sets of regulations; usage of lockers and locker rooms; student and staff accommodations; social-emotional learning (SEL); parental input “as much as possible;” and forthcoming additional surveys.

Also mentioned was the monitoring of restroom usage, or limiting the amount of restroom users at one time.

“It’s a plan schools have to come up with and meet with us for approval,” said Ficarra of the restroom situation.

He also said he would be meeting with the local council of schools during the week to obtain feedback for principals and vice principals and make sure the district is “not missing something.”

A deeper look into the potential re-opening, besides transportation and health considerations, include areas such as ventilation; the choice to continue distance learning; childcare, which Ficarra said he knows will be an issue; and room sizes. Ficarra said the number of children on school buses will affect drop-offs and pick-ups.

As for health concerns, there are also questions about which teachers and students might opt out of in-person education.

The district also has to prepare for other scenarios, such as if a teacher or student gets sick while at school, or a teacher’s spouse or family member falls ill.

“We have to find answers to all of this before school opens,” said Ficarra, who also said he will seek guidance from physicians and health officials.

Although there are no special school ventilation requirements at present, Ficarra said that distance learning would be acceptable to the governor’s office as an option, and he planned to have more details later in the week.

Room size is “one of the biggest concerns and drivers,” said Ficarra of the re-opening plan, and he demonstrated with a pair of slides how a classroom that normally features 20 student desks would be reduced to 11 desks, with social distancing parameters and accompanying floor markings.

“How many students can you fit in the building?” said Ficarra.

He also said community input and surveys will help the district develop some commonalities, including type of instruction and social distancing measures. As for the surveys, he reported that 34 percent of responders favor utilizing in-person learning. Another 30 percent prefer a blended approach to re-opening, using both distance learning and in-person instruction, while 25 percent voted for distance learning, and 11 percent said they weren’t sure which approach they wanted.

Ficarra pointed out that combining the in-person pollsters with their blended approach counterparts resulted in 64 percent of the population surveyed.

“It correlates with what the governor says we must have,” said the superintendent.

The surveys further revealed that 68 percent of parents would be willing to transport their children to the schools themselves, as opposed to 32 percent who wouldn’t.

“It’s one thing to say in a survey, another to commit,” cautioned Ficarra, who added that he is seeking more hard data on the matter.

As for other survey areas, 60 percent of responders “highly supported” maintaining 6 feet of social separation between students in school, which rose to 77 percent when combined with those who “somewhat supported” the measure. Another 58 percent “highly supported” 6-foot social distancing on school buses, which jumped to 73 percent when adding “somewhat supported” responses.

Ficarra explained the dilemma with busing, in that if less than 68 percent of parents who said they would drive their children to school ultimately do not, socially-distanced busing would be impossible, as with 6-foot separation measures there could only be a maximum of 11 students on a 54-passenger vehicle. If that was the case, the district would require four to five times as many buses and drivers, neither of which was available.

“Busing is something we have to get a handle on,” he said.

A further 69 to 82 percent of responders highly (and somewhat) supported daily temperature checks for students and staff. Another 56 to 75 percent highly (and somewhat) supported maintaining static student and staff groups.

“It’s a pretty good consensus,” said Ficarra, for those people wanting to see static cohort groups.

He pointed out, though, that would only be achievable at the K-8 levels, and not at the high school due to the completely different structure of the latter.

The district had also developed Pre-K to eighth grade hybrid full-day staff models, which have not been finalized. The schools would welcome 50 percent of their students at least two days per week, with rotating Fridays.

There could also be weekly A/B schedules, with “A” designating one half of a school’s students and “B” the other, or daily AAA/BB schedules with rotating Wednesdays, among other options that could include virtual-learning Wednesdays.

Students would basically receive four hours of instruction every day they were in school in person, along with an end-of-day distance learning period following an early dismissal. There would be no lunch or recess periods held, although disadvantaged children would receive grab-and-go lunches to ensure that the district complied with the law.

“These are the things being considered,” said Ficarra. “We will synthesize them down into the most probable and efficient model educationally and safety-wise for our students.”

The high school would also be a four-hour day, with 33 percent of students in the school on a given day, although Ficarra mentioned he’d like to increase that figure to 50 percent. There would be three different cohorts/schedules for high schoolers, although Ficarra added that the district is “not closing the door on other options.”

“This is not the final answer,” he said.

The district is set to continue meetings with principals and supervisors, plus the restart committee and school board committees, to discuss feedback and adjustments, until July 28. Final preparations will be made following an all-day session on July 29, with a re-opening plan recommendation to be made to the school board.

“That’s essentially where we are and where we’re headed now,” said Ficarra, who added he hopes the public will be patient and bear with the district. “We’re doing the best we can.”

Several members of the public voiced concerns with the plan during the public portion of the meeting. A few parents said they want their children to have the option of continuing with distance learning on a full-time basis, citing health concerns.

Bridgewater-Raritan Education Association president Laura Kress called the re-opening plan “a daunting task,” but also said she was “very skeptical about the feasibility.” She said she believes education and logistics will be at odds, and that virtual learning should continue, although she also offered her assistance to the district.

The board of education will hold a special meeting Aug. 3 at 7:30 p.m., at which time the district’s final re-opening plan will be presented to the public and voted on by the board.