LIVINGSTON, NJ — Rather than developing a reopening plan that would likely need to be revised over the next several weeks as new information about the novel coronavirus continues to emerge, Livingston Public Schools (LPS) is preparing for all scenarios while gathering all relevant data and public input until the state’s Aug. 10 deadline to submit a concrete plan.

During Wednesday’s Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) meeting, LPS Superintendent Dr. Matthew Block explained that the district is coordinating plans for three possible options—all in person, all virtual, or a hybrid of the two—and is analyzing several data points, such as classroom capacity at each facility and a reopening survey being distributed to parents and staff. 

As previously established “restart committees” continue to consult with experts to determine the most advisable protocols for all three options, the district is also working to improve its remote learning model and obtain potentially necessary equipment such as masks, thermometers and hand-sanitizing stations.

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“It is not my intention to come out with plans or ideas and then modify them several times before we finalize those plans,” said Block. “I know that some other districts have put out plans and are working backwards from those plans...I can easily put out a quick plan and then we can work to figure out the details, but this is too important and there’s too much at stake for us to do that.

“We have seven weeks until school starts. Every day we learn more information, hear new ideas and come to a more solid understanding of what we need to do. We must be thoughtful, deliberate and base decisions to the extent possible on what we truly know and understand."

As a father of two, Block acknowledged how difficult it has been at times to make decisions for himself and for his family—particularly when he and his wife have differing opinions about how to handle certain aspects of the pandemic when it comes to their children.

With this in mind, he urged patience from the public and reiterated “what a significant challenge it is to create a plan that will best serve [Livingston] students and staff while considering the current health crisis.”

“The challenge for us as an administrative team for our board of education, for our committees and our community is—within our own families, within our own organizations, within our own neighborhoods, we all have a different way of looking at this and a different tolerance for risk,” he said. “We have the charge of navigating this environment for 6,000 of someone else’s children and hundreds of staff members.”

He added that the process of formulating a plan "has become all-encompassing" and that "the size of this task weighs heavy" on all involved due to the "myriad of challenges." 

“Our attorney, our school physician and others have told us that the guidance and the landscape of decisions will likely shift many times before school opens in about seven weeks," he said. "The one positive is that we had a week to go to remote instruction, and we have another seven weeks to continue sorting through the significant number of complexities.”

Block cited a 104-page document from the New Jersey Department of Education entitled “The Road Back” as one of the many challenges, stating that the official document mandates all schools to reopen in some capacity in the fall, but that the guidance received “is not specific and leaves a lot of room for local interpretation.”

“‘The Road Back’ mandates that we provide a plan to families about a month before school starts,” he said. “We plan to do that, and then—as local health officials and physicians are telling us—we’ll be ready to adjust and pivot as this unfolds throughout the next school year.”

He also recognized that getting students back to some form of normalcy “is important for their well-being.”

“We are educators, and tending to the education of our students is of the utmost importance to us; but we know we must do it in a safe and thoughtful way,” he said.

In addition to the State of New Jersey being on a “better trajectory than other states” in terms of containing the virus, Block also said the Livingston district has the advantage of being able to collect data from onsite programs that have recently opened, including the Extended Year Programs (ESY) and camp groups that have been utilizing LPS facilities since July 6.

“I think in all ways, ESY has given us a tremendous amount of information both instructionally and procedurally,” said Assistant Superintendent Lisa Steiger. “We’re taking notes every day, we’re asking teachers to reflect on all the processes they’re using so that we have good information, and we’re sharing it in the appropriate committees. So it’s been very helpful in getting us information in a safe space.”

Steiger added that the maximum number of bodies currently allowed in the room for both ESY and the summer camp is 11, which typically includes one or two adults overseeing six or seven students for ESY.

Classroom capacity was among the many considerations that board members addressed when discussing the onsite reopening scenarios, as it is highly likely that students will need to be divided in order to allow for proper social distancing.

Block explained that other local districts are addressing those concerns by introducing a hybrid model for reopening, but clarified that there are still several scheduling options to consider. Describing this as a “cohorting” model, Block further explained that students would be divided into cohorts and assigned a schedule that includes both onsite and remote instruction, alternating between either mornings and afternoons, “A Days” and “B Days,” or “A Weeks” and “B Weeks.”

According to Block, many districts “are grappling at this point with what the ‘somewhere in between’ might look like,” while other districts are currently planning to bring students in for an abbreviated day all five days of the week.

He reiterated that LPS is not currently favoring one particular option, but stands firm in the belief that “every student needs to get a full-time education—even if a portion of it is virtual and a portion of it is in person.”

“The choice of model is about two things: it’s about delivering instruction effectively, [and] it’s about safety,” said Block. “The 10,000-foot overview considerations are the number of students you have in the building at once—that’s the number one consideration of which model you choose—how many students a staff member will be interacting with on a particular day at a particular time [and] how instruction is delivered.

“If you’re in a hybrid model, and you have a certain number of students in and a certain number of students out, you have to determine what the instruction looks around that so that every student is able to be instructed…It’s about population in the building, and it’s about how you effectively instruct in that model.”

Weighing in on the three options, LBOE member Pamela Chirls stated that this is “a weighty decision to make” and expressed concern about the need to start thinking practically about what LPS need to look like in the next seven weeks.

“We’re not necessarily getting the guidance that we need on the timeline that we need to ensure and to feel confident that we’re keeping everybody safe who is physically present and attending to the needs of students who might be physically at home,” said Chirls.

LBOE President Ronnie Konner added that “trying to be prepared for all of the different eventualities” is “a conundrum”—especially when the experts often do not agree with each other.

“We had a long conversation with our district physician [on Wednesday], who provided us with some very good information, and we are certainly consulting with all of the resources that are coming out through the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and from the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics),” said Block. “So we are relying on resources beyond us to make those decisions, and [the safety aspect] is exactly why we’re approaching planning process as we are…

“We want to be thorough in our approach in terms of figuring out the details and how it might work before we make a commitment, and that involves making that sure that we consult the experts, read the materials, make sure we understand the CDC guidelines, we run things past our health officials, and we run things past our district physicians, so that’s an integral part of our planning process.”

In response to other concerns that need to be taken into consideration—such as busing, traffic flow at drop off and pick up and the installation of filters and plexiglass in school facilities—LPS Business Administrator Steve Robinson reminded the board that “Livingston is not in this alone” and expressed confidence that the state is going to provide additional guidance in the coming weeks.

“As much as they’re not wanting to give direction, I expect there to be more direction coming from the federal and the state,” said Robinson. “There are going to be a lot of different questions from a lot of different people, and I’m assuming that there’s going to be strict requirements if we have to go back [into the buildings] of exactly what filters have to be, masks being mandated—a lot of things that we’re going to be told we have to do…

“What I bet is going to happen here, and I’m sad to say this, but we’re doing all this work and I have a feeling we’re going to be told at the last minute what the plan is going to be, and it’s going to reverse everything that we did. I think that’s unfortunately what the state’s going to end up doing to us.”

Block agreed that LPS is not alone in this decision, stating that he has been conducting conference calls regularly with superintendents from Millburn and other neighboring districts that are “all in the same boat.”

“What’s required to be provided to the community by [Aug. 10] is the overall plan—the number of days a week that students will be in, the times of day that the students will be in—and the purpose of that is so families can make arrangements,” said Block. “We wouldn’t want to wait very long, but we still have from Aug. 10, theoretically, until the staff arrives to refine, for example, our ‘wellness check’ system and to refine our mask-wearing policy. So there are some details that we can still have experts look at or members of the community or our district physician.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, the board also went over the plan for improving the virtual learning model and a revised school calendar that would allow for additional professional development days in September if adopted. CLICK HERE to read the full article.

Public comments can be heard about 90 minutes into Wednesday’s LBOE meeting, which can be viewed in its entirety on the Livingston Public Schools Facebook page.

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