SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- In a letter to parents in the Scotch Plains-Fanwood SPFK12 district, superintendent Dr. Joan Mast reported that the results from her recent parents' survey found the overwhelming majority (81.5%) of families would send their students back to school for some type of in-class/remote learning hybrid during the upcoming school year. 

Dr. Mast also reported that during the past week, the SPFK12 School District Restart Committee held its first meeting to begin developing a Restart and Recovery Plan that will best fit the needs of students in the district and ensure that the schools reopen as safely as possible. The committee comprises experts in air quality, risk-management, virology, and medicine. Among the members are therapists, engineers, doctors, parents, teachers, administrators and BOE members. 

"The survey was useful so that we could determine if the hybrid was the choice, we would then plan for how many classrooms we will need and how to space them," said Dr. Mast in an interview with TAPintoSPF. "Parents are not locked into their choice. We knew people would want it (the hybrid option). We also realize that kids need structure."

Sign Up for Scotch Plains/Fanwood Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

"Another consideration was that if parents voted for Plan A (full-time instruction), the school district would not be able to guarantee the maximum social distancing," Dr. Mast said. 

When initially asked what their preference was among three options (in-class, hybrid, or remote only), 43% chose hybrid, 36% chose in-person, and 20% said remote. This week, Gov. Murphy announced that parents across the state who do not feel comfortable sending their children back to school, could choose remote learning only.

Releated: Murphy Offers ‘Virtual-Only’ Option for 2020 School Reopening

Busing Issues

Had the district opted for full-time instruction, busing would have been a challenge. Dr. Mast said that busing costs in that case would have to double in order to allow for social distancing. Meanwhile, there is a shortage of bus drivers, and a number of the ones who are working are retired people. (COVID deaths have hit the age group over 60 particularly hard.)

According to Dr. Mast, buses can hold 52 students, which means the students could not socially distance them.

"People are like magnets; we gravitate to each other," said Dr. Mast, who admitted that busing is a big part of the challenge. She is examining the option of having bus supervisors to be on board to ensure social distancing on the way to school.

Dr. Mast said the reopening committee includes a virologist, who said the virus is still here and that New Jersey's numbers are good because we kept our distances.

"He told us that the virus will come back and that two game-changers would be inexpensive testing (that could be done every day). If you test positive, you'd have to stay home for 14 days," Dr. Mast said. "He also told us that despite progress, we should not count on a vaccine before Christmas."

Trickiest Part of the Equations

Dr. Mast said that the state has informed superintendents "We need to bring kids back, and we are."

"What's tricky is that we have kids at different levels. Therefore, our schedules have to align so families with children at different levels (elementary, middle, and high school) can be there on the same day," she said. "We can have a configuration if you split it in two groups. That's the level of detail we are going into."

"This is just terrible for everyone" 

"We are trying to develop the most thoughtful plan. School will be nothing like what we had in the past (before COVID-19)," Dr. Mast said. "Even with only half the kids in school at a time, they will have to wear masks and stay away from each other. That's hard for the younger students. With the little kids, you can barely hear the volume of their voices, which are just beginning to develop. It's hard to hear them under masks, and it will be hard for them to hear the teachers, as well. But this is how we prevent the spread of COVID."

Tracking Progress

"We know that whatever happens in the classroom, has to happen at home, too," said Dr. Mast. "We will have live and virtual school. The specific details are being worked out. Teachers can put a lesson online, but we cannot stream classrooms online into everyone's living room where everyone might see a kid who is struggling."

The district will have a structure via Google Classroom, and there will be time schedules for attendance, and some form of live interaction. The superintendent said she worries about disconnection of students who might be having a hard time with material.

"Connecting through ZOOM is not the same. We have to extend our support system and our perspective. This has to be baked into our plan for the fall," she said.

"What we (administrators) are doing is hard, but we are asking teachers to do something hard, as well: teaching in a new and different environment," Dr. Mast said. 

"This year, we had some superstars, and teachers are in different places in their use of technology. We did an average job last school year, and we are prepared to do exceptional job this year," Dr. Mast said.

July 26, 2020

Dear SPF Community,

On Wednesday, July 22, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood District Restart Committee held its first meeting. Those in attendance included members of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood administration, parents, students, faculty, staff, members of the Board of Education and a member of the town council. The goal of the Restart Committee is to advise the Superintendent and the Board of Education in developing a Restart and Recovery Plan that will best fit the needs of Scotch Plains– Fanwood and will ensure that the schools reopen as safely as possible.

The District Restart Committee is made up of experts in air quality, risk-management, virology, and medicine. Among the members are therapists, engineers, doctors, parents, teachers, administrators and BOE members.

The Committee subsequently formed sub-committees that discussed ways of meeting the social and emotional needs of students and staff, the processes needed to provide a safe return to a secure school environment, facilities preparations, technology supports, the ongoing dynamics of virtual learning, structures needed at every level to sustain At Home Learning, development of needed policies, the dynamics of communication, and ongoing professional development. The committee reviewed the results of the July 21st District Reopening Planning Survey.

The survey asked parents to identify their preferred model for teaching/learning. The results provided the district with data needed to initiate planning by identifying approximately how many students will be returning and in which one of the three different scenarios. We learned from reviewing 4,883 responses that 20% of our families do not want to send their child back to school at this time and would opt for At Home Learning. Also, we learned that the majority of the families prefer a hybrid model where students are divided into two cohorts providing the opportunity for more social distancing.

The committee also discussed models that other districts have released. The majority of the districts are preparing to begin the school year using a hybrid model. The specifics of the hybrid model vary across districts, based upon individual district’s bussing needs, classroom space allocation and the network’s bandwidth.

The District Restart Committee will continue to meet weekly in an advisory role to ensure the safest possible implementation of the NJDOE guidelines.

Every school in the district has an established Pandemic Response Team to help prepare individual buildings and faculties for the 2020-2021 school year. The schools will provide a weekly update to the District Restart Committee. Communications from the district regarding the overall progress in planning will also occur weekly. We will keep you updated on the details as they unfold. We expect to have a finalized plan by August 7th.

The pandemic is creating many challenges for everyone. We are all working with the same shared goals to provide the best plan possible for our students.

Sincerely,

Dr. Joan Mast
Superintendent of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Public Schools