MILLBURN, NJ — Monday evening, on the first day of school for all Millburn students, the Board of Education hosted a virtual town hall to address questions about the 2020-2021 school year.
Before members of the community asked their questions, Superintendent Dr. Christine Burton provided an update on the efforts to get students back to in-person instruction.
During the previous Board of Education meeting on August 24, Dr. Burton announced her intention to get special populations back to in-person instruction prior to the anticipated full district return on November 9. “Special populations” include those the Board believes most need in-person instruction, including PreK through Grade 4 and special education students.
During this town hall, Dr. Burton explained that the current plan is to get those special populations back to school on a hybrid model by October 5. The hybrid model would be similar to Plan A, which the district presented earlier in the summer.
Essentially, these students would attend school in person five days a week in either an AM or a PM session for two and a half hours. The other two and a half hours would be spent at home. In-person instruction will focus on core subjects, such as reading and math, whereas virtual instruction will focus on the related arts.
Right now, the district still intends to keep the fifth grade, middle school, and high school students completely virtual until the initial November 9 date. This is largely due to staffing issues, as the district will need to hire and train enough substitutes to fill in for the teachers who are unable to teach in person. Unlike the elementary school, as the grades get higher, the need increases for staff members with more specialized certifications.
Regardless of the opinion they expressed, many parents took the time to thank the Board and staff members for all the work they put into the first day of school.
Many parental concerns centered around the changed return date for special populations.
Stacy G questioned what the hybrid model would look like in practice. Would students be able to keep the same teachers? What are the specific cleaning procedures? How will the classrooms actually be organized?
Dr. Burton said that schools “may have to change schedules because they just won’t have enough space to accommodate our virtual students.” And while she didn’t have all the information, she did say information with “much much more detail” will be forthcoming from specific schools prior to shifting to the hybrid model.
Lisa Glassman asked, “what’s the progress towards helping the staffing limitations?”
Dr. Burton said, “we’re pretty confident that we can hurdle those staffing issues,” so October 5 seems like a reasonable date for the special populations to return to in person.
Regarding the return of middle and high school students, Julie Mazer asked whether it was possible for students to return to physical school buildings and to be taught virtually by teachers who are unable be in-person.
The possibility was considered, Dr. Burton said, but the problem is that students must be supervised. The schools need to have substitutes to cover all the classes with teachers who cannot come in, and there are not currently enough substitutes to do that.
Josh Warner, a high school senior, explained his perspective on the importance of returning to in-person instruction at the high school. For seniors, this year is a “once in a lifetime experience.” The district should do everything in their power to make sure that seniors don’t miss out on their important privileges and experiences.
Dr. Burton acknowledged the importance of senior year and stated her intention to get high school students back in-person, even if it is only on the hybrid model.
That being said, some community members also brought up the issues with the first day of school.
Karen Bassier said when her kids got off the computer, they “looked like hell,” and asked: “can we do something to protect the mental health of our kids?”
Andrew Kaye, a high school junior, said that it was “hard” to sit in front of the computer so long, describing it as “back to back conference calls.”
To both, Dr. Burton responded that today was only the first day of school. The first day of school is always focused on logistics. Going forward, students “will not just be tethered to the computer.”
The underlying theme was the fluidity of the current remote learning model. As COVID-19 continues impact everyday life, the future of in-person learning remains uncertain. The most important thing to remember right now is that virtual learning will continue to evolve to suit the needs of Millburn/Short Hills families, and the district will return to in-person as soon as it is both safe and feasible.