LIVINGSTON, NJ — As Livingston Public Schools (LPS) prepares to bring students back for in-person learning after being all remote since Jan. 4, the administration shared a draft of its reopening plans earlier this week based on feedback from stakeholders—including students, parents and educators—on the district’s hybrid learning model.

Prior to Superintendent Dr. Matthew Block’s presentation on the revised hybrid schedule for Livingston schools, Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) president Samantha Messer assured the community that although no one will be “entirely satisfied with the plan,” the revised schedule “responds directly to a great deal of feedback” and aims to “improve the experience of both teachers and students.”

“I don't think any of us will be fully satisfied until we can return to full in-person learning,” said Messer. “None of us, including our teachers and administrators.”

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Recognizing that Livingston is “looked at as an educational leader” in the state and does “not take the easy way,” Block reiterated that the administration has “thoughtfully and methodically looked at what benefits the students best.”

Since establishing the original hybrid schedule in September and modifying it again in October, Block said the administration has consistently sought to pivot instruction models according to needs of the students and will “continue to pivot for the remainder of the school year.”

“It is our sincere hope that with the help of the vaccine and spring weather, the final months of the school year will begin looking more like we remember school and want school to be,” he said. “We are listening to feedback and adjusting based on our experiences.”

The new schedule, to begin on Feb. 1, was created in response to community feedback as well as COVID-19 positivity rates and other statistics being reported within the township, county and state.

Factors impacting the district’s ability to increase in-person learning. 

During the first week back after the winter holiday, from Jan. 4 to Jan. 8, Block reported that 17 members of the LPS community were quarantined, including six staff members and 11 students.

According to Block, seven staff members and nine students have tested positive for COVID-19 for a total of 16 cases among LPS community members.  

Within the Livingston community at large, Block reported that there were 54 new cases reported among residents during the first week of January, putting the community on track to surpass 200 cases in January after seeing 269 total cases in December.

The superintendent also noted that the Township of Livingston has also been in the “orange” or “high-risk” zone for the last two months, according to the New Jersey Department of Health, which has required changes in the district’s contact tracing and quarantine protocols.

According to Block, the district is still managing “extensive staff absences,” which in turn requires the utilization of proctors to cover classes—particularly at the secondary level.

Additionally, the district has recently experienced a decrease in the number of students opting for the hybrid model.

Since September, when approximately 68 percent of elementary-level students opted for the hybrid-learning model, the overall percentage across the six elementary schools has decreased to 63 percent as of Dec. 23, according to Block.

LPS has seen a much more significant decrease at the secondary level, where the number of students in grades six through 12 enrolled for the hybrid decreased from 74 percent in September to 60 percent by the end of December.

The superintendent expects a recent increase in student enrollment to impact cohorts at the individual schools as well as transportation.

According to Block, LPS has enrolled 32 new students since early December compared to 11 new students who registered around the same time last year. Specifically, the elementary schools realized an increase of 24 new students (14 all-remote and 10 hybrid), while the secondary schools have eight new students (three remote and five hybrid).

Results of student and faculty feedback:

According to Block’s presentation, common feedback from LPS students included a feeling of “Zoom fatigue,” where students are finding it difficult to spend so much time on their computers between classes and homework.

Students also reported that they miss interacting with their peers as well as their teachers, and the older students said they miss the schedule rotation, adding that they are currently attending too many classes in one day.

Many hybrid students have noted that their teacher’s attention often appears to be primarily directed toward those attending class remotely, which has further minimized their in-person interaction opportunities.

Students have also requested that the district refine office hours to meet the needs of all students.

Faculty feedback was consistent with that of the students regarding the need for more interaction and less screen time, as they also miss the rotation of classes and would prefer addition instruction off Zoom—particularly when the students are in person.

According to LBOE student representative Aditya Desai, Livingston High School students have also expressed concern over the district’s proposal to extend classes to 75 minutes. However, Desai and his peers have not been able discern whether this change “will be a pro or con” until the specifics are announced.

In order to alleviate these concerns, Messer suggested that the board consider presenting examples of what a 75-minute period would look like and how that time would be structured.

Acting Livingston High School principal Mark Stern added that the extended class period would provide for additional interaction between students and staff as well as greater opportunities for teachers to work one-on-one with individual students.

In response to inquiries from LBOE members Ronnie Konner and Seth Cohen about the need for professional development workshops focused on best practices for managing this new time frame, Block said that instruction for staff has been built into their existing schedule, but that he “will not be hesitant to ask for an additional day” if the need arises.

At Cohen’s request for clarification on how secondary-level cohorts would be coordinated ensure continuity for families with students at more than one school, Block confirmed that the time spent in school would be the same. According to Block, the only difference would be the structure of class times scheduled each day.

Block and Stern both also confirmed that the feedback from the 40 percent of students who have opted for fully remote instruction has been considered in these proposed revisions.

According to Block, the goal after reassessing enrollments for the two learning models will allow for a reduction to two cohorts, which will then provide the opportunity to schedule new times for the high school.

Heritage Middle School principal Shawn Kelly also weighed in on the topic, pointing out that the “amount of time being allotted for the high school teachers with that 75-minute time frame" is “going to be very similar” to what is being done at the middle school level.

“It's just the way that we go about structuring it and organizing it for our teachers and for our students that will be different,” said Kelly, noting that the amount of time that the classes are going to be scheduled for is not going to change. “The way that we are going to structure that time for our students and how we're going to lead our staff into development professionally for that is really, I think, where we're going to see the big change.”

During Block’s presentation, it was noted that one major consideration for Livingston’s elementary schools is the ability for the physical classrooms to accommodate the proposed number of students for each cohort while still abiding by proper social-distancing guidelines.

Moving forward at the secondary schools, Block said the reduction of cohorts to only two will have students inside the facilities more frequently, and the new schedule will include fewer extended daily class periods.

He also said the middle school is “likely to keep classes a bit shorter based on feedback” with a continued focus on balance and social-emotional wellness.

The district plans to maintain and expand the capacity for asynchronous and independent practice during the period.

LPS administration expresses optimism about the future and encourages community to continue providing input.

As the administration continues to solicit community feedback, a number of initiatives have taken place that include surveying the students; re-examining daily and weekly instructional and cohort schedules; planning and preparing for professional development to refine the hybrid instructional practices; and asking secondary-level families to re-commit to either the hybrid or remote model in order to reassess cohorts.

In addition to the LBOE reopening forum held Monday—which had about 160 residents participating via Zoom in addition to those viewing the meeting on Facebook—the LBOE has also distributed multiple surveys to stakeholders and recently conducted a joint meeting with the township council and local health officials to coordinate efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Block has also consistently met with members of the township council and members of the parent-teacher councils to provide updates on the district’s rapidly changing plans.

Reflecting on some first-semester successes in addition to opening the schools, Block noted that LPS had “a very successful and enjoyable fall athletic season”; had “a myriad of activities taking place outside” at all nine schools whenever possible; and was one of few districts in the area that was “able to stay open to a large extent between Thanksgiving weekend and winter break.”

“Our facilities have been open for hybrid learning for four months at the elementary level and for three months at the secondary level despite many challenges and setbacks,” said Block. “I really have to thank our principals our staff, our teachers and our entire team for the work that they've done to both open our schools and to keep our schools open.”

According to Block, the State of New Jersey has 339 districts (or 44 percent) that are all remote; 348 districts (or 46 percent) working under the hybrid model; and 77 (or 10 percent) districts fully open for in-person instruction as of this week.

More information and a draft of the new schedules will be distributed to families with adequate time for the district to gather feedback.

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