MAPLEWOOD, NJ — With the first week of hybrid learning complete the district has begun to discuss scheduling modifications that would reduce the number of staff that is actually teaching from their classrooms.
“We are looking to reevaluate having all teachers in buildings,” said Frank Sanchez, Principal of Columbia High School. “We want to balance student and staff safety with instructional time.”
Columbia has approximately 105 students coming into the building each day, said Sanchez. Most of those students are freshman, so many upperclassmen teachers are in their classrooms but exclusively teaching virtual students.
The same situation is taking place at the two middle schools. Ryan O’Dell teaches 7th grade English at Maplewood Middle School; he says he now feels safe in his classroom but knows his experience is not universal. Especially last Wednesday, O’Dell said, having work being done in their classrooms while teachers were also present did not make them feel like the district was ready to reopen
“I go back and forth on the issue,” said O’Dell. “As teachers, we’re concerned about the kids, thinking is this the best environment for them to learn in?”
Before the pandemic, class periods at MMS were 50 minutes; during virtual learning they are 30 minutes, and for hybrid classes they are even shorter, to allow for kids to move between classes.
“The kids are getting maybe 22 minutes of instruction,” said O’Dell. “I don’t know if academically it’s worth it with the risk that’s out there.”
Technical issues in the first few days also uncovered a glitch in the digital safety system. A piece of the equipment was sent out for repair, but it is not directly related to the student’s ability to get online at school.
Superintendent Ronald Taylor says he has been flooded with positive feedback from families, but he also understands there are some concerns.
“It’s an extremely fluid situation, even more so than in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy,” said Taylor. He added that the district has been in constant contact with the South Orange Maplewood Education Association (SOMEA), but did not go into any detail about the discussions. SOMEA has publicly called on the district to close school buildings until teachers can receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We’re being wedged into a situation that is fundamentally unsafe,” said David Mastrodonato, a history teacher at CHS. Mastrodonato does not teach freshmen, but he does co-teach two sections of history for English Language Learners. His classroom is large enough to distance all the students and his co-teacher, but he knows that is not the case for all teachers.
The wide range of experiences is something both Mastrodonato and O’Dell pointed to as a barrier to learning. O’Dell's room is cold, and he remains completely bundled up while in his classroom, but he said colleagues in the same wing of the building are wearing t-shirts because their classes are sweltering. He noted this is okay for teachers who are in the same room all day but the students are moving between all these rooms throughout the day.
Teaching to both virtual and live students, Mastrodonato says, has been frustrating.
“As a teacher you are naturally going to focus on people in the room but you're not able to because you’re teaching online and in-person,” said Mastrodonato. He continued that even though he is closer to some students by proximity he is essentially doing the same thing as when they were all virtual.
One thing both teachers and administrators have agreed on is how well students have adhered to the COVID-19 safety protocols such as mask wearing.
“I’ve been so impressed, compliance has been excellent,” said Taylor. Sanchez echoed this sentiment, adding that some students have to be reminded to social distance when they are outside the building.
Student athletes have also returned to school facilities. They’ve begun practices and scrimmages and official games will begin in the next two weeks.
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