BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District will be starting the new school year much as the previous one ended — with fully online lessons, in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
More than a few parents and residents were displeased with the district’s decision to pivot away from a proposed hybrid model for at least the first month of school, and they spoke out during Monday’s board of education meeting
"We are extremely disappointed in the school district's decision to reverse course and begin the year all virtual," wrote Edward Hallowell during the virtual meeting. "Teachers are abandoning their duties, especially to children who are more vulnerable. So many others have found a way to make it work — neighboring school systems, daycare facilities, grocery stores, summer camps, yet BRRSD schools and its teachers, who provide among the most essential of services, have let us down.
“Have you considered holding classes outdoors?” added Hallowell. “Have you considered having in-person classes for elementary students?"
Hallowell also asked about the district's path going forward, and what data points and other information would be utilized to guide the decision of district administrators regarding distance learning when October rolls around, such as teacher availability and COVID-19 transmission rates.
"This should not be an arbitrary decision, and all members of our community should have clear expectations of what needs to happen in the next five weeks to get our kids back to school," he said.
Interim superintendent Thomas Ficarra had explained in an update earlier that evening that the district pushed back its in-school start date as administrators did not feel the schools were ready to take on students, even on a limited basis, particularly with ongoing changes to health guidelines from the governor’s office and other entities.
That still didn’t sit well with a number of residents.
"To the school district, teachers and teachers union, shame, shame, shame,” said resident Jack Roberts. "Distance learning was a complete joke in the spring with teachers doing below the bare minimum. How can you in good conscience allow this to continue? You are doing irreparable harm in your community, in the kids, their parents and businesses who rely on these families as employees.”
Some took issue with an earlier presentation regarding harassment, intimidation and bullying, which was given prior to the discussion about virtual learning. The HIB presentation is required by the state every year.
"The way this meeting started has got to be a joke," said parent Stacey Bennett. "How about we prioritize getting our kids back into school, then we can talk about bullying."
Resident Marcia Johnson concurred.
"Why are we talking about bullying when our kids have been out of school since March?” she asked. "Let's get the schools open ASAP. Why are we delaying this?"
"Open the schools!" echoed resident John Smith. "Why are we delaying the start when cases are declining? Our kids need to get back to social in-person. If we are allowing protests, allow the kids in school."
Other residents voiced other concerns.
"I feel that the district is rushing communications lately," said resident Stacey Friedlander. "Can we maybe work on getting full details in one swoop? For example, the switch to virtual should have had more information in it, which prompted the outpouring of concerns from parents and resulted in a follow-up e-mail a day later."
She questioned the potential distribution of Chromebook laptop computers to students in grades five through eight, such as what will be done if students already have their own laptops, and said not enough information has been given on the matter. She also had questions about using personal devices on school time, if the district's Chromebooks were differently enabled in ways that would make them better to have, or if insurance was necessary or available.
"It would be great if all the information could be provided at once so when we receive e-mail communications we don't have to write in and bombard anyone with further questions and e-mails," Friedlander said.
One resident said she wishes the teachers were receiving all the information at once.
"It really is a shame that teachers need to watch this BOE meeting to find out even the shred of detail that Ms. (Karen) Jones provided regarding what will be expected of them and what their four-and-a-half hour day will look like," said resident Claudia Browne. "It would have been nice if teachers were let in on all these plans before Sept. 2 since they are going to be expected to seamlessly deliver everything on Sept. 8. So unacceptable."
Others offered sympathy for local educators.
"It seems to several in our community that requiring teachers to request accommodations to teach virtually may not be necessary at this point," said resident Eileen Boosmann. "Please explain thoughts and process that resulted in having all teachers working in classrooms each day while all students are working virtually, given that teachers' lessons will be virtual.”
"Also, why are students spared, but employees subject to current concerns regarding ventilation before remediation finality?” added Bossman, who also thanked educators for their “diligent work."
"I want to express my support for allowing our teachers to choose for themselves whether they want to teach virtually from their home or from their classrooms," said resident Jessica Levitt. "I know teachers have different situations, and as long as they are meeting the requirements of teaching their classes to our high standards, then they should decide for themselves where they can best do this. We need to trust our teachers as the professionals they are and they should not be required to be in the buildings unless there is a specific reason for them to be there."
As for the district's proposed four-hour in-school schedule, she said she wasn't sure if that included Bridgewater-Raritan High School, and that shortened class periods in the high school might make it harder to effectively cover all the material at that level.
"Finally, I want to encourage the board to continue the streaming of all public board meetings (preferably with an ability for the public to comment remotely) even after they return to in-person meetings," said Levitt. "This has enabled much more participation from the community and is vital to continuing to improve communication between the board and the public."
Some individuals said they were concerned about supplementary services in the district.
"How do you plan to ensure that before and aftercare will be available at all elementary and intermediate schools upon reopening for hybrid?" asked parent Michelle Lynch. "Rumors were circulating that some schools would not be able to open their before and aftercare because of enrollment. One school can't have it while others do. It is not equitable if all schools do not offer it."
Lynch also had questions about Chromebooks, and how the district will make sure to supply them to elementary students who need them, or what system requirements parents should be searching for if they plan to purchase their own such device. She also said she hadn’t been able to locate that information on the district's website.
The last voice came from within the district's own ranks.
"As the interim principal of the middle school, I would like to echo Dr. Ficarra's comments about the staff," said Chris Steffner. "I have found the administration and the staff to be dedicated to finding solutions for the unprecedented challenges we are facing. Karen Jones and Jaimee Kochis in particular have been amazing, helping us to navigate the endless changes that are occurring. They make themselves available at all times day and night and on weekends to make sure we have the information and support we need to make the adjustments that are required."
Board members did not directly answer any questions at the meeting.