SCOTCH PLAINS-FANWOOD, NJ – In a move that was of little surprise considering the steady stream of news about the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood School District announced on Thursday that it will continue with At-Home Learning until at least April 20. Spring break, (Monday, April 5, through Friday, April 10) will remain, and At-Home Learning will resume on Monday, April 13, 2020.
“The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the decision as to when we anticipate opening our schools and resume normal operations. During this next cycle of closings, we will continue to keep our community informed,” Dr. Joan Mast, superintendent of the SPFK12 District, wrote in a letter sent to parents on March 26. “We are hopeful that we will be able to return to our regular school session this Spring. All decisions to return to school will be based on directives from the Governor of New Jersey.”
The revised At-Home Learning schedule is as follows:
- March 30: At-Home Learning resumes
- April 6 -- April 10: Spring Break – NO SCHOOL
- April 13: At-Home Learning resumes
- Return to School: TBD At the Governor's directive
In an exclusive interview with TAPintoSPF this week, Dr. Mast said she hopes to salvage as much of the normal school year as she can, but the spread of COVID-19 and directives from the governor take the decision out of her hands. School administrators are practicing social distancing, although a skeleton crew is in the administration building to handle functions such as payroll.
“We are learning a whole new way of doing things,” Dr. Mast said. “We have never practiced taking face-to-face school and making it virtual. We have departments and teachers who use virtual tools, but always have had face-to-face instruction along with use of those tools.”
Dr. Mast said that people are being “pushed out of their comfort zones” because of the COVID-19 restrictions.
“Teachers are using learning tools that they didn’t find necessary before and are recognizing there is power in the tools,” Dr. Mast explained. “For instance, not everyone had used Google Classroom before. Now, they have put resources for students to work through. All of this provides a good framework once we are back to normal. This is one of the real silver linings (of school cancellation).
“Our elementary supervisors can schedule online ‘face-to-face’ meetings, and they are realizing you can get a lot done without a physical presence,” she said.
The superintendent said that when the district was first told to close for two weeks, it was hard to fathom how things would go.
“Originally, I was really thinking two weeks would do it, but as you see the exponential curve of New Jersey, it will be much longer,” Dr. Mast said. “Now we are talking about the need for respirators, and they are looking at setting up field hospitals.
A big focus for the superintendent is whether the district will be able to have a graduation ceremony.
“We must plan ahead and be very flexible. The uncertainty makes this challenging. You don’t know how long you are planning for,” Dr. Mast said. “Some superintendents are putting return dates with asterisks, but it’s really not my call.”
“We are recognizing that we have to grieve the losses of capstone experiences for seniors. So much of what happens in the school year comes to a graduation point,” Dr. Mast said.
The superintendent has had to cancel events that have been in the works for a while. One thing was having middle school students shadowing the Board members. The kids wrote applications to do to be able to do it. Other teachers were working on curriculum partnerships and art integration. That, too, is on hold. Preparation for college AP exams is now done virtually, and officials have not explained how AP exams will be administrated.
Dr. Mast is saddened particularly by a number of losses.
“Mostly when you think of senior athletes who might not get to play their final season. There were a couple who were primed to have a special season,” Dr. Mast said. “At least, Chicago (the SPFHS musical this spring) had its first weekend. At the district choral night, we were going to showcase the revival of the district alma mater. There were the middle school concert performances. We can move some of these things to next year, but the disruption is significant.”
“The culmination in academics, the special courses in AP realm -- they haven’t been clear what the test will look like,” Dr. Mast explained. “Teachers look forward to preparing students and getting their results.”
Right now, educators see a “data gap” that is being created. Students that remain in the district will catch up on learning next year, but Dr. Mast said we won’t get feedback on how college students did.
“The colleges will have to have a different type of measure,” she explained. “We don’t know what the assessment is yet. It will be a new tool.”
Dr. Mast explained that Learning is truly different without day-to-day structure and the ability to check in with teachers.
“We are putting more structure in as we plan out the next two weeks of school instruction,” Dr. Mast said “We didn’t want to introduce new learning. Now knowing that this may go on indefinitely, we have to get them to do instruction.”
“We know kids won’t be where they would be. As a system, we can adapt for the kids that we keep. We can concentrate the loss of instruction, but for those graduating, it will be harder to do,” Dr. Mast said. “Hopefully they have a skill set to be able to fill in some of the gaps for their college work.”
Dr. Mast has been in regular contact with content supervisors, principals and assistant principals.
“My mail box has never been so active,” she said.
Once of Dr. Mast’s biggest concerns is for students’ social and emotional well-being.
“It’s important to be with friends and have activities and structure. We have kids getting their assignments from their teachers but they many not having structure at home,” she said. “In the next round of home instruction, we are making sure they can reach out in personal way and have routines that are more familiar.”
Overwhelmingly parents have been very supportive, according to Dr. Mast.
“They see the effort put in place. They see the teachers are being thoughtful,” she explained. “Yes, there are some parents who express their concerns rather passionately. Some feel teachers are ‘off’ and parents are ‘on’. I feel I’ve never worked so hard to meet people’s needs. I know teachers are feeling that way, too.”
When Will Students Going Back?
“We don’t have specific guidance. State testing is canceled. For the district we are looking at the skills that must be mastered, rather than introduced,” Dr. Mast said. “We are planning in two-week blocks. That makes the most sense.”
The Senior Class
“I’m hoping out hope that seniors can graduate as a class. The senior prom has not been cancelled at this time. If it were next week, it would be canceled,” Dr. Mast explained. “Everything we are doing is working backwards from the end. If graduation is canceled, how do we recognize and certify them? I’m talking about this with administrators, but I’m really hoping we’ll be back.”
“Speaking for myself and administrators, I am thankful who everyone who helped to transform from brick-and-mortar schooling to virtual learning. Thought it’s not perfect, we are making modifications as we go along. I want them to know the district’s gratitude,” Dr. Mast said.
Dr. Mast says that some of the things she has seen are heartwarming.
“Kids are putting art in the windows. We have a group of teachers who are mask-makers; they are making them for those who need them. We are still doing ‘crazy sock day’ (virtually), and our media specialists are doing read-alouds,” she explained. “The Tuesday and Thursday afternoon concerts have been great. “
“Fortunately, the hasn’t really been a close impact in our community so far. I hear stories of family members getting sick, but. I can still count those on my fingers,” she said. “Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that we now appreciate what is ordinary -- who thought that we would miss school so much? But we do.”
The next Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education meeting takes place Thursday, March 26, 2020, at 8:00 p.m. The meeting will be livestreamed at https://stream.meet.google.com/stream/bee06ee7-67d8-48d6-b287-24fd65f0d922 and there will be a call-in portion for the "Public Comment" section of the agenda. Please email your questions/comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.