BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ -- The NJ Department Of Education has directed, “Absent a shift in public health data, school buildings will open in some capacity for in-person instruction and operations in the Fall.”

Thursday night, with 400 plus Zoomers attending the Berkeley Heights Board of Education meeting, members unanimously approved the recommendation by the Superintendent of Schools for township schools to reopen this fall under “Plan A.” 

The plan, which takes nine slides to explain, keeps schools open five days a week for about four hours each day, after which there will be a travel/lunch/break, followed by another period of remote meetings, conferences, support, and interventions. Masks will be required for everyone in the school, unless they have a medically documented condition. In that case, a face shield will be supplied. Social distancing will be observed, when possible. The district had about four weeks to create a plan. 

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Superintendent of Schools Melissa Varley told the board she was making her “recommendations to the BOE for the reopening of school based on the belief that giving students the most ‘normal’ educational experience possible is the best solution.”  See her complete opening remarks here

Later in the meeting, she said she believes  “Mental health trumps COVID.” 

There was also a Plan B, which would have split the student body in half, alphabetically, with half of the students attending school for four hours a day for five days and the other half learning online. The next week, the groups would switch places.

Plan C, full remote learning, would only be implemented if the public health data changed, or if there is an outbreak in the township.   However, there is the option for parents who want their children to attend school remotely to do so, however, they have to let the district know by Aug. 17. Forms will be available soon. 

Those who opt for remote learning can only return to in-person instruction at the beginning of the next marking period. The district does not yet know if remote learners can take part in in-person extracurricular activities.

After Dr. Varley and other administrators finished the slideshow presentation on reopening the schools, Board President Doug Reinstein asked for questions from those on the Zoom call. He pointed out there was a “Frequently Asked Questions” section on the website and asked people to check that site before asking their questions.

Many Questions, Not All Answered

By the time the question and answer portion of the meeting was over, more than 50 people had asked questions -- some posed as many as three or four questions to the superintendent, and a few had made statements. Many said they disagreed with the decision to open schools to in-person instruction, while others preferred Plan B..

Brianna Cagan, a rising senior at Governor Livingston High School (GL), said , “as a student, I want to go to school … I’m good at it … I want to go back to school.”  She told the Board of Education before members made a final decision on whether to open for in-person learning, “I want a say. We’ve been taught throughout our entire academic journey to advocate for ourselves …  However, when it comes to what happens to us in our school, we are left out.”  The parents in town received a survey on whether and how to open schools, but “the people who will be enduring this new normal and bearing a large part of the adjustment are somehow left out of this conversation.” She suggested a group of questions that would be “entirely valid,” for students from 14 to 18 years of age to answer. She pointed out on-screen interactions with teachers or staff members who provide emotional support to students is much different from an in-person interaction. She concluded by asking the board to “ask us” what it can do to ensure the safety and sanity of students in Berkeley Heights. Her comments appear at about 43 minutes on the meeting video.

Reinstein agreed that “student input is important,” and that there is no “shortage of ideas and suggestions from that group” and the board would figure out the best way to get feedback from the students at GL. 

President of the Berkeley Heights Education Association Dan McGovern said  he was asking the board to “make an unpopular choice tonight and support plan B - the hybrid model of reopening.” He called Plan C “the safest plan” for students and staff, and asked the board to follow the lead of the Bayonne school board which approved all remote learning. McGovern said his objection to Plan A is the difficulty in following a six-foot separation for social distancing, especially in some of GL’s overcrowded classrooms with “nearly 30 students, a teacher, interpreter and paraprofessionals.” 

Chris Wong asked how remote learning will operate. “Will they be getting a livestream of the classroom? How will that work?”

Dr. Varley said, that it is hard to say how it will work because “there will be students in the room who are covered by HIPAA laws,” and can’t be on camera.

Reinstein asked Dr. Varley if she would have an answer to Wong’s question by the board’s next meeting on Aug. 13, and she replied, “It will be all figured out by then.”

Adrienne Stack, who is also a teacher, asked if the “district is looking to begin the school year with everything being online? … or are we looking to go completely virtual from the start, in terms of access to the materials?”

Dr. Varley said, “That’s another detail we don’t have worked out … It will be a local building decision on how it will be disbursed.” 

Elizabeth Lundberg was concerned about remote learning being of the same quality as in-person, that it will be the “same quality” as the other students are getting.

Dr. Varley said people know that live, in-person instruction is better, but the remote learning will be as rigorous as it can be

Arathi Ravi, a mother of a rising Kindergarten student, said she is considering using the remote learning option, and stressed how important it is for the district to have specific information on how it will work before the deadline to sign up for Option C comes up.

Reinstein said, “We have a lot of the answers tonight, but not all the answers.” Given the important decisions parents have to make, “we will make sure we deliver to everybody what remote learning will look like … so they can make a decision.”

Marissa Schirrick said she and her husband “haven’t returned to work in the office, because we are not allowed,” so they are choosing Plan C.

Sander Raaijmakers said he was not happy with the way the survey was taken. “People didn’t have enough time to respond to this to make an informed decision.” He said his experience with the sudden switch to online learning in March was “very, very positive” and asked “why would we push the children back to school when the situation is not normal?”

He also asked “How many teachers have said they will either not show up, call in sick, retire early? I am very worried about that.”

He added he was surprised Berkeley Heights chose Option A and not B, as did New Providence and that he thought the survey should be rerun. He, himself, said he would choose Plan C.

Dr. Varley said “over 10 and less than 20 teachers” have said they won’t return to school to teach.

Ruth deBang asked if there were criteria for the district to change from Plan A to B or C;  if someone doesn’t feel their situation is safe, can they change their minds mid-marking period to go to Plan C and how is the cleaning happening between room changes?

Dr Varley said, with Plan A, students will be able to be socially distanced because given the number of people who are opting for Plan C, there will be sufficient room in classrooms. If there were more people who chose Plan A and fewer who chose Plan C, the district could opt for Plan B. Right now the district does not have the option of adopting only Plan C.

At any time students can switch from Plan A to Plan C, said Dr. Varley.

As for cleaning rooms and areas after classroom changes, high school students should be able to clean desks and the like with household cleaning supplies purchased by the district  -- much of these are currently on backorder, said Dr. Varley. 

Lisa Moretti, a teacher at GL, questioned Dr. Varley’s motive for choosing Plan A over Plan B. 

Dr. Varley said it is to “provide consistency” for the students. Many children are experiencing “mental health issues”  because of their isolation. Some parents don’t have jobs where they have the option of working from home, and Dr. Varley said she worries “about whether our families’ needs are taken care of.”

Moretti asked the board members to envision her health classroom. There were 31 students in the class, then a few more were enrolled. There was also an ASL interpreter, and a co-teacher in the room, in which the desks were so closely packed she had to move sideways to get through. “In some cases, the desks were less than an inch from one another,” she said. Other classrooms are also that crowded, she said. While she wants to be back at school with her students, “I’m opting for Plan B. I think it is the only acceptable choice,” because it is the least risky choice.

More questions were asked from how it will work for students when they don’t have access to lockers -- Dr. Varley said there was no answer to that, yet.

John Foster, the band parent president, asked what was going to happen to after school activities, including the marching band. 

One answer may be holding band practice outdoors, in tents so they can play even in inclement weather. Mr. O’Sullivan is looking into that, she said.

David Moore asked about the details of supplementary care for children whose parents both work outside the home. “We need as much clarity as possible” at to what options are available. 

Dr. Varley referred him to the Y, which offers after school care, as does Primrose and Westminster Church.

Todd Najarian asked about social distancing and wondered why other states were choosing Plan B as a way to make social distancing work, while here it is being disregarded as a solution.

Dr. Varley said the district will, in some cases, be placing students closer together than the recommended six feet, but students will be wearing masks.

Plan A

The entire 32-slide presentation on the “Re-Entry to a New Normal” can be found here:

To find out how to effectively reopen Berkeley Heights schools, a total of 11 committees, made up of teachers, administrators, staff members and school board members, researched how to best execute the various components involved in the reopening of the schools. The 11 committees covered “facility and custodial stringency; curriculum, instruction, and remediation; social emotional learning and health; finance; transportation; governance; operations; personnel; technology; special education and related services and athletics. 

Each committee made recommendations to the administration, which, in concert with the Board of Education, made decisions. The plan was released to the public. The last step is for the Board of Health to give its final approval. 

The district sent out a survey to parents, and 2,202 parents responded -- that is 86% of the total who received surveys. Sixty eight percent of the families said they would send their children to school with Plan A. Thirty two percent of respondents said they would not send their children to school and, of this number, “40 percent said they would not send their children to any in-school option,” according to the presentation.  

Plan A is described in great detail beginning with slide 6 and includes separate proposed school schedules for Governor Livingston High School, Columbia Middle School, the elementary schools, and Mary Kay McMillin. There are separate school schedules for different schools and grade levels.

There are plans for facility safety, one of which, upgrading of building ventilation fans, is already underway. There will be plexiglass dividers installed, where appropriate, lockers will not be used in the middle or high schools.

Parents will have to take their student’s temperature every day, before school, and those with temperatures above 100.4 degrees should not be sent to school. Staff members will be held to the same standard. Those who can attend must produce a document saying what their temperature was.

When weather permits, outdoor classes will be held, and those schools with recess will hold it outside.

Student and staff safety provisions include no in-person meeting with more than two adults. All larger meetings will be held remotely. 

Staff and students are required to quarantine themselves if they have been to a “hot spot,” unless they can present a negative COVID-19 test. The Department of Health will do contract tracing, when necessary and appropriate. 

All courtesy and subscription busing has been eliminated -- that leaves more room on the buses for students. Busing of students from “hazardous” locations will continue. The buses will be deep-cleaned and sanitized after morning and afternoon routes. Students will enter the bus from the back and sit in the front and unloaded from front to back. Everyone on the bus will be required to wear a mast.

Plans for dealing with special education and related services have been made - the slideshow describes these plans. It also describes how the district will take care of Social and Emotional Learning for students and staff.

Students will do self-heath screenings daily and have documentation to allow them to enter the building. Special instructions apply to those who become ill with COVID-19 symptoms while at school -- they must leave the building immediately and isolate at home. Those who come in contact with a person with a positive COVID-19 test, must quarantine themselves for 14 days.

Other rules apply those exposed to COVID-10 out of school. Anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 cannot return to school without medical documentation of diagnosis, quarantine and permission to return to school. Contract tracing will be implemented.