FLEMINGTON, NJ - Students will no longer be going on field trips, walking the halls to the water fountain or even using the hand dryers in the bathroom this fall in the Flemington-Raritan Regional School District (FRSD).
All staff and students, including preschoolers, will be required to wear face coverings in school buildings. No middle school sports teams are working out this summer (yet), and parents are urged to buy thermometers in preparation for possible health screenings being required to be administered at home.
Upwards of half a million dollars has been spent on items such as touchless hand sanitization stations for every classroom and high traffic areas, like gymnasiums and entrance lobbies, and there are more orders to be placed in preparation for the reopening of J.P. Case Middle School, Reading-Fleming Intermediate School and four elementary schools, as well as the continuation of virtual instruction.
These were some of the many details Superintendent Dr. Kari McGann shared in a thorough overview of her district’s plan, “Academic School Year 2020: Returning with Confidence,” amid the coronavirus pandemic, at the virtual board of education meeting Monday.
“Returning with confidence” is the primary goal for the district as it prepares to reopen its buildings for in-person instruction for the first time since March. However, 272 parents, or 19.7 percent, have indicated they are not at all comfortable with their child returning to school buildings in the fall.
A lot of what was presented to an estimated 500 people on the meeting call arose from recommendations of four different task forces, comprised of about 90 volunteers, who have been meeting over the course of the past two to three weeks to quickly reimagine what the average school day will look like, come the first day of school Sept. 3.
What has also assisted in the creation of this plan is the ever-changing guidance from a number of different places, such as Gov. Phil Murphy, New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Murphy and the NJDOE mandated all school buildings open in some capacity for in-person instruction this fall, and require districts to offer parents an all virtual instruction option for their kids.
FRSD parents will need to choose between two available options for their children before the school year begins, the first being a hybrid education of in-person instruction and remote virtual instruction. These students will be divided into "Group A" and "Group B," and will alternate week-by-week between instruction in school buildings and instruction at home.
The second option is having students learning remotely every week.
There is an exception for the “students with the greatest challenges,” who will receive “in-person schooling as much as possible,” because virtual learning is deemed to limit their access to education, McGann said.
McGann contended that what she shared regarding this upcoming school year “is just the start,” and more specific details, like individual classroom schedules, are being ironed out and will be made available to the public at a later date.
Close to 200 questions filled an inbox throughout McGann’s virtual presentation. She told those on the call that she would be putting together a “Frequently Asked Questions” page based on the submissions.
Other future questions or comments can be sent to her executive assistant, Laura Bruhn, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her “Superintendent’s Report – July 27” presentation can be found at www.frsd.k12.nj.us/Page/25.
McGann said in a separate interview that two topics have “dominated” the conversation, transportation and childcare.
She shared that the district is working with Bruce Black, chief executive officer of the Hunterdon County YMCA, about the possibility of offering childcare in what will be the uninhabited school cafeterias before and after school, and maybe even during school hours.
McGann said this is a possible option for childcare because students will not be eating lunch in the cafeterias, nor will the district be renting out any of its building space to outside community groups in the name of protecting staff and students. Nothing is finalized at this point.
McGann said the district is estimated to lose about $120,000 in revenue from not renting out its building space to community groups.
Regarding transportation, McGann noted during her presentation that a survey of about 1,300 parents indicated many would not be sending their child on the bus. Either way, the district expects to be ready with “very clean” buses and new protocols.
“Entering and exiting the bus is going to look different,” McGann said. “It’s going to be loaded from the back to the front. Kids that are getting on the bus will go to the very back, if you are the first ones on the bus. And that will alleviate any unnecessary contact between students as they enter the bus.”
Students will be given hand sanitizer on the bus and be required to wear face coverings.
“Social distancing has been recommended on the bus,” she said. “That means kids in alternating seats sitting across, but not directly across, but alternating seats going down the bus, but if you are in the same family, you can sit together.”
Besides the hot topics, McGann touched on a bit of everything in the presentation.
Parents will need to select option one or option two for their students through Genesis, and more information will arrive soon with directions on how parents can submit their choice.
The district will make every effort to assign siblings from the same household to the same group in this hybrid model, so that siblings attend school for in-person instruction on the same scheduled weeks.
Students, who attend schools for in-person instruction, of all grades including preschool, will have shortened schedule with “early release.”
“Why do we have an early release?” McGann said. “That is because we want to make sure that in the afternoons, our teachers have a time to connect with students that chose virtual. That’s one of the reasons.”
Students also will divided into “cohorts,” otherwise known as “pods.”
“Groups of students will be staying together throughout the entire day for in-person classroom instruction,” she said. “They’ll stay in these pods, and that allows us to have minimal interaction between cohorts and limits the risk and spread of COVID-19.”
She noted this is more challenging with the older grades, as the middle school and intermediate school students take different classes based on preference and needs.
“That is difficult to manage, but we have smart teams who are doing things in order to be able to do that,” she said.
Arrival and dismissal times at schools “might look a little bit different” and may be staggered, especially if a lot of parents are bringing kids to school and dropping them off, McGann said. But, these times have yet to be determined.
All staff and students will be required to wear clean face coverings in the buildings and on the buses at all times on a daily basis, unless an underlying medical condition exists. Age-appropriate safe mask breaks will be scheduled during the in-person day.
There will be a system in place for daily health screenings for students and staff, but the specifics are still to-be-determined.
The district may be asking parents to confirm each morning that their child is free of all symptoms of illness, but the district will be prepared to monitor temperatures of students and staff upon arrival to schools.
“I’m really waiting to talk more to the Hunterdon County Health Department and get some guidance from our Executive County Health Department and get some guidance from our Executive County Superintendent’s Office, now that the CDC has come out with these new recommendations, so again, more to come on that,” she said.
Classroom desks will be 6 feet away from each other, and facing in one direction. Teachers will be encouraged to bring kids outside when the weather is appropriate, which will allow time for a mask breaks.
The flowing pattern to the building will be indicated by posted signs and arrows, and there will be additional entrances and exits to the buildings in an effort to avoid crowding.
There will be a limited sharing of “high touch” materials, and the district will be asking students to bring their own supplies.
There will be touchless hand sanitization stations and the paper towel dispensers will be checked and refilled “at least four times” daily, McGann said.
Despite water fountains being barred, bottle filling stations will be kept open, but will be sanitized twice a day and once during the evening shift.
Multi-purpose rooms, library media centers, art rooms, band, orchestra and the chorus room will have minimal use to reduce communal gatherings.
Back-to-School Nights and Child Study Team meetings will be held virtually, and parent-teacher conferences could look different (but more information will be forthcoming).
Building visitors will be limited.
“Visitors will be limited to principal invitation,” McGann said.
Any area deemed a food consumption area will have an increased frequency of cleaning. Students in grades five through eight will not eat lunch at school, and kindergarten through fourth grade students will have lunch in classrooms (or outdoors).
“We still want to be able to provide meals to our grades five through eight students, because we have eligible families,” she said.
It could be grab and go, or meal pick-up, but it’s still to be determined for eligible families, she said.
Recess is “no more,” McGann said
“When I say, ‘no more,’ I don’t mean that kids are not having recess, it just means that the whole grade level isn‘t going out to recess, but teachers can take their class out to recess,” she said. “That would be part of a teacher’s individual planning with his or her class.”
Students will have physical education in-person outside, weather permitting, but there will be no contact activities, and locker rooms will not be used.
Other special classes, such as art, music, library, orchestra and band will be taught virtually.
Along with no field trips, there will be no assemblies.
Schools districts are permitted to allow sports teams to begin summer workouts, per the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA), but the FRSD has chosen not to have teams start, and will continue to watch the guidance.
McGann said she will not be making a “hasty decision,” while recognizing the importance of allowing sports to restart in order that students are physically fit.
“To date, no sports have been scheduled yet, but we are setting up,” she said. “What I mean by that, we’ve prescheduled, we’ve shared with the transportation department what we would need for transportation in preparation for a return to sports.”
Of note, the district has spent about $500,000 in preparation for this school year, but also has saved about $250,000 in costs such as transportation, substitute salaries, copier costs and paper supplies. McGann also announced that the district received $135,000 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act.