BRIDGEWATER, NJ - More than a few parents and other members of the public expressed their displeasure with the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District regarding reopening plans Tuesday.

During the public portion of the board of education meeting, many individuals told district administrators and the board that they are disappointed in a recent plan to introduce pods to in-school learning in some schools beginning next week when grades one to six are to expand to five days of in-person weekly instruction. They said they also want the district to relax its 6-foot social distancing strictures, and at least one said there has been a failure of leadership in the school system.

Public comments came almost two hours after a presentation made by interim superintendent Thomas Ficarra, in which he updated the board and the public about the number of COVID-19 cases in the district, and the district’s ongoing approach to combating the virus. He said the number of quarantines is “trending down,” with just 31 cases this month from Feb. 13 through Feb. 19.

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He urged the public to remember that there are many factors involved when they hear about neighboring school districts opening their doors, with some districts perhaps not even following health guidelines.

“We are going to follow the medical advice, and not ignore it,” he said of the Bridgewater-Raritan district.

That includes maintaining 6-foot social distancing between the edges of desks in a classroom, with up to 10 students in the same classroom. It also means that pods will be used at Hillside Intermediate and Van Holten Primary schools for one or two extra students in classrooms in those buildings.

Those students will be taught elsewhere in the same building with an educator present for them, with students in those classes rotated in and out of the pods on a regular basis.

In an email to the district late last week, Ficarra said the plan for grades one to six is to divide the cohorts into two sections each. On rotating weeks, half of Cohort A and half of Cohort B will join the other cohort.

For example, on week one, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday will have cohort A and the first half of B, while Thursday and Friday will have Cohort B and the first half of A. On the second week, Monday and Tuesday will have Cohort A and the second half of B, and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will have Cohort B and the second half of A.

More than a dozen parents spoke out about the changes, each limited to a maximum of two minutes each, to give everyone a chance to talk.

Ryan Woodring, who has two sons in the district, said he had sent out emails to many different individuals about his personal concerns, but said only Ficarra and a Somerset County commissioner had responded. He said he has two brothers in the Midwest whose children are attending school on a full-time basis, and said that a diagram that Ficarra had shown during his presentation regarding social distancing had been a “cartoon.”

Woodring said teacher vaccination os a “key issue,” and that the district needs to get its students back in their school buildings five days a week.

Parent Emil Roszkowski said the 6-foot social distancing that Ficarra has long championed is a “recommendation, not a mandate,” a mantra that Roszkowski repeated several times before he was finished. He also said that valuable instructional time is being wasted, just as at the start of the board’s virtual meeting that night when there had been several technical difficulties.

Parent Terra Mezzasalma accused the district of “neglect,” and said that she wants a “quality education” for her children. She also said there are consequences to social isolation, including putting students in the proposed pods, and that she would sign a waiver, ostensibly for her children to physically return to school.

She added that the plan rolled out by the district less than a week before for returning students to school was “not leadership,” and asked said leadership to step down if it can’t get the job done.

Kyle Juechter, a senior at Bridgewater-Raritan High School who said he was previously diagnosed with ADHD, admitted he had been in a good spot last year until COVID struck, and then he “fell apart” once the switch was made to virtual learning.

“I can’t work at home,” he said, noting the many distractions outside the classroom, and that the hybrid schedule implemented in October was “erratic” and had only been worsened by recent snow days.

“I basically have no schedule,” added Juechter, who said the district needs to go back to five days of in–person instruction per week.

Others concurred.

“We need to move forward,” said parent Swapna Dixit, who has two children in the district.

She added the district need to get back to meeting “the blue ribbon standards of Bridgewater,” after it had rushed to provide its new plan last week. She reiterated that 6-foot social distancing is “not a mandate,” and that the district needs to balance its COVID concerns with mental health, which she said it has failed to do.

“It’s insulting and insensitive,” she said.

Bridgewater teacher and BREA president Laura Kress said many entities believe that “schools can be opened” with the guidelines provided, and she also called several groups that had formed in town on both sides of the issue to come forward and meet with the superintendent. She said the board is working with teachers to get them vaccinated, but that it will take time.

Kress said she understands that people in town are angry, but that the school board is “not bad people.”

Parent Sonja Chartowich, who has two children attending school locally, said she wants to know the maximum number of children who will be placed in the pods, and who will be the staff member overseeing them. She also asked what accommodations are being made for 504 students and those with IEPs.

Parent Rachel Wescoe briefly commented on the issues with technology that had been experienced that evening, and said there are additional options available to maintain social distancing, including placing plexiglass shields at student desks. She said she is pushing for in-person instruction, not in-person babysitting, but also felt there were questions of leadership.

“It shows negligence,” she said of the district’s recent plans regarding grades one to six, and that she wants her child to be educated and not baby-sat.

Wescoe said she also feels that “greater inequities” will occur in the district, particularly with regard to students with IEPs and 504 plans.

Parents Ramla Tayyabkhan questioned how in-person education is not deemed to be safe when athletics are being played, and she said she worries about Bridgewater-Raritan High School students competing for colleges and scholarships under the current instructional model. She said she also feels that property values in town will be affected by the school system.

“Get our kids back into school,” she said. “We owe it to them.”

Parent Caitlin Glaws also criticized the district’s approach to instruction.

“The hybrid model is not working,” she said of students splitting their time between virtual and in-person learning, as many of them have since the hybrid model was initiated back in mid-October.

“I urge you all to improve your communication process," she added. "You are misleading the community, including our children. This is creating a huge trust issue.”  

Glaws said the hybrid model is not working as it stands.

“Our teachers' attention is being split," she said. 

Parents Christine Juechter said there is a “rapidly-brewing” group of parents in the district with serious concerns, and she added that now a year after COVID first struck, people have to work together to protect the mental health of both students and staff. She said that hybrid education is “a disaster,” that the district could do “way better for our kids,” and that other districts have implemented both virtual academies and full in-person teaching.

Like other parents, Juechter said she also wonders what instructional approach the district will implement in September, when the new 2021-2022 school year begins.

Parent Katelyn Diffin said the district is still “far away from meeting basic educational needs,” and told administrators and board members to stop comparing Bridgewater-Raritan to other districts and to instead learn what those school systems have done to return to five days a week in-person education. She also said to discard hybrid instruction, and that re-opening the schools would be hard “but not impossible.”

Parent Jennifer Loughran said her child is struggling in the current educational model, and also has limited access to guidance counselors. Loughran added that she is not without empathy for others, but added that students need to be in school.

“We need equity of access,” she said.

Parent Laura Whalen said she is grateful to the board for “having the guts to do the right thing.” She said many people reached out to her following the previous board meeting when she had related her own family’s many struggles with COVID, including the loss of her husband to the virus.

In addition, Whalen said, she feels that one or two off-years like the current one will not impact students’ future educational or money-making opportunities, and that keeping students and staff safe is of paramount importance, with vaccines either here or on the way.

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Whalen. “It’s much closer than you think.”

Parent Aneta Zislin said she chose to move her children to a private school, where she said there have been only four COVID cases among some 400 students, and that students also remind one another to make sure to wear their masks.

Ficarra said he wanted to clarify that the 6-foot social distancing measure is a recommendation by the CDC and local health offices.

“We didn’t pick and choose,” he said, after also earlier explaining that private schools are not subject to the state’s education department.

Ficarra added that plexiglass shields are not a substitute for 6-foot distancing, although he said he understands the public’s frustrations. He added that the public had posed “really good questions,” and that the district keeps getting back the exact same comments from various health officials, which os to maintain at least 6 feet of social distancing.

Ficarra said he meets with the county superintendent several times a month, and that the district is not seeking ways “not to bring back children.”

He also asked the public to continue to make comments.

“We take them very seriously,” said Ficarra. “I understand your frustration, and we’re doing whatever we can to open within the guidelines.”

Barlow concurred.

“We definitely hear your comments, and your pain,” she said.