UNION, NJ – The Union Public Schools Reopening Plan was provided to parents Sunday via email, containing detailed information about the two learning options available to students for the upcoming school year.

“The district ‘Reopening of School 2020-2021 Plan’ has required the collaboration among parents, teachers, district administrators, and community partners all in an effort to develop this comprehensive plan as a community and nation to move through this difficult COVID-19 pandemic,” said Superintendent Gregory Tatum in a message to parents included in the Plan.  “Much consideration has been given to the needs of our students, staff and families in its development.”

Union schools is offering two education platforms:  Full-time virtual and hybrid (mix of in-person and virtual) learning.  “Attention has been given to the academics, social and emotional learning/academic development, and sanitation, safety and wellness for students, staff and their families,” said Tatum in the message. 

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Committees

In addition to a Task Force made up of school administrators, supervisors, security and maintenance personnel, several other committees were formed, made up of parents, teachers, administrators, staff, and union members.  The committees included the Close Out Protocol Committee (June 2020), the Social and Emotional Learning Committee, the Sanitation, Safety and Wellness Committee, and the Education Redesign Committee.

Survey Results

Parents were surveyed on July 8 to determine their interest in a virtual learning school for students.  The question, “Would you be interested in having your child attend a virtual learning school for students if made available” was answered by 3,324 parents, with almost 70% responding ‘Yes’. 

A survey on July 27 asked parents for their choice of either a one-hundred percent virtual or a hybrid learning experience.  Of the 2,274 parents who responded, 48.9 percent selected the virtual option and 51.1 percent the hybrid.  Parents of special education students chose the hybrid option more often (55.1 percent) than the virtual (44.9 percent).

In answer to a survey on July 30 asking how many households had internet/WiFi access, 95.9 percent of the 1,206 respondents said they did have access, with 4.1% saying they did not.

The Plan

According to the Educational Redesign/Academic Plan, Union schools will open with one-hundred percent full-time virtual classrooms and a hybrid (mix of two days in-person and three-days virtual) classroom.

The virtual classroom will provide an experience similar to the physical classroom, the Plan outlined.  Teachers will use “pedagogical approaches and redesign instructional models to include virtual classroom interaction, collaborative learning, student centered instruction, a variety of content presentation and learning activities, psychologically safe environment, positive and constructive feedback, and explicitly teaching and assessing 21st century skills in a virtual setting.”

According to the Plan, the Hybrid model will allow students to be face-to-face with a teacher for two days of the week, based on an A/B schedule. Students and teachers will be present in school either on Monday and Tuesday OR Thursday and Friday.  Students will have virtual learning the other three days of the week.  “This will enable students to receive classroom instruction in-person part-time and virtual instruction from home.”  Modifications will be provided for students with an IEP or 504 to support their academic needs.

Issues such as technology, English language learners, special education, and preschool classes were outlined in the Plan.  The social and emotional needs of students was also addressed, with strategies to include morning or afternoon meetings prior to the start of lesson activities to facilitate opportunities for students to connect and reflect, meditation and mindfulness exercises, integrated social and emotional classroom lessons, and daily check-ins by school social workers and counselors.  Academic, social and behavior supports, developmental needs, family engagement/resources, mental health supports, food services, grading and attendance were also outlined in the Plan.

Union schools will follow CDC reopening guidance for cleaning and disinfecting public spaces, workplaces, businesses, schools and homes.  The Plan calls for consistently cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and objects that are frequently touched, including objects not ordinarily cleaned daily (light switches, doorknobs).  Playground equipment will be cleaned between groups.

School staff and students will be required to wear face coverings, unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health.  Students, staff and visitors much complete an online screening-risk assessment questionnaire and temperature check prior to entering the building or boarding the school bus.  Parents/families will complete the questionnaire and take the student’s temperature before sending them to school.  Any person answering ‘yes’ to questions or anyone who has a temperature equal to or greater than 100.4 will be instructed to stay home and call the school nurse.

Parents’ Reaction

“I know everyone involved is working very hard to put a formal plan together in order to reopen schools safely, but the information that was sent out to us yesterday is still extremely vague,” said the parent of a Washington School second-grader.  “Parents that were/are on the fence about which option to choose still cannot make a proper informed decision about which option would be best because a lot of our questions are still unanswered. I know the one thing that I am not comfortable with is having parents be responsible for checking their children's temperatures and/or symptoms. Children are constantly being sent to school sick after being given fever reducing medicine in the mornings before being dropped off. All parents want their children back in an actual school setting so they can receive their education in person, and of course have some kind of social interactions; however, the health and safety of all students, teachers and staff members should remain a top priority.”

“I chose the hybrid AB schedule for my son,” said the parent of a Union High School sophomore.  “I feel as a parent he needs the classroom environment.  Each family needs to base their decision on what’s best for them and what they are comfortable with.”

“The plan that was released yesterday leaves a lot of decisions left to the building principals,” continued the parent.  “I believe  parents are looking for more of a concrete answer as to how the day is going to go and that has not been communicated.  Most likely because they are still working on it. It is a hard time for all.  This is all new to everyone, and I think all the staff wants what’s best for the students.  I try to remain positive that each plan, whether remote or hybrid, will be the best we can give them during this pandemic.”

“This is actually a very difficult topic,” said the parent of 5th- and 7th-graders.  “The school has given parents alternatives to consider and choose the format of the school year for their children.  I understand this was difficult for everyone in the education field, but to be honest, I have mixed feelings about the plan in place for the upcoming school year.”

“Having to make this decision as a parent is a very stressful and difficult one,” the parent continued.  “On one hand, you want to protect your children and have them do virtual learning.  And on another hand,  you want your child to have the opportunity to establish a connection with his teacher to encourage him to learn throughout the year and help understand the curriculum being taught.  I feel as if no one should judge as to what a parent chooses.”

“There is no perfect plan for the upcoming 2020/2021 school year,” said parent Elsie MacKey.  “Both options come with challenges that I believe will have a long term effect on our kids. I feel in-person instruction and peer socialization are key factors required for students to effectively learn and succeed, especially children with disabilities. In my opinion, remote learning just does not work, especially for a child with a disability.”

“We have chosen the hybrid plan for my seven- and fifteen-year old children,” said MacKey.  “My 15-year-old son with autism attends an out of district school.  He has been without in-person speech, occupational and ABA therapy six months and counting, which has set him back years of progress.”  MacKey said he will be attending school five days a week. “The decision to send him back is tough because sensory-wise he will not wear a mask all day but the regression of goals needed to live a productive life is concerning, so we are going to take the risk and send him back to school.”

“Until the “leaders” tasked with making decisions for the greater good of our kid's education can collectively work together minus the “us against them mentality”, we as parents will continue to be placed in the position to make these hard choices for our children,” said MacKey.

“After reading the plan for re-entry, I am choosing for my daughter, who will be going into ninth grade, and my son, who will be in fourth grade at Battle Hill, the 100 percent virtual option,” said Michelle Schulz.  “My decision is based on many reasons, but I want to mainly wait at least the first marking period so a lot of the kinks are hopefully worked out. I want nothing more than the first day of school to be a normal one and have all kids back to the classroom, but I know we have a long road ahead.”

“Working the pandemic and seeing COVID first hand in healthcare, we know a lot more about the virus than we did back in February,” said Tracey Alves, mother of a Livingston School second-grader.  “As cases continue to increase at alarming rates, we don’t know much how it will affect children.” 

“We need to keep our children and educators safe and thriving in a way that is practical and sustainable.  The academic skills learned in grades K-2 set the foundations for future success in all subject areas, but during these times of uncertainty parents need to remember kids are RESILIENT.  Whether its virtual or hybrid learning, it will be a very challenging year for all, especially those with both parents as essential workers who will then need to decide who will juggle at home learning vs. working every day.

Teacher’s Reaction

“I appreciate that most stakeholders were involved in the process [of developing the Plan], although the plan is probably not divergent from other districts, given state and federal guidelines,” said one elementary school teacher.  “The plan provides for individual choice among parents but not so much among teachers.  Will teachers have to prove comorbidities to do virtual only  teaching?”  The teacher added, ‘It's not clear what will happen to a hybrid classroom when one student or teacher presents with symptoms or tests positive?"

“I personally believe we need to move on,” continued the teacher.  “I don't believe we are much safer today than four months ago when life's restrictions started, and I don't believe anyone knows for sure that we will be safer five months from now.  This may be our new normal.  Children need the school environment for many reasons.”

“Now that we see the NJ statistics rising, I appreciate there is a choice for students and staff to be educated virtually,” said Livingston Elementary School teacher Ann Margaret Shannon.  “However, I am still very concerned for those going into the buildings.  The success of these plans rest on the backs of the employees.  Social distancing with the little ones will be a challenge.  And as for lunch, I wish we had half days.  If parents can't take their kids to McDonald's, why are we letting them eat in the school cafeteria?”

“I appreciate the Union School District for creating committees that consist of teachers, staff and administration to come up with a complex plan to meet the needs of the district,” said a Connecticut Farms Elementary School teacher.  “I also appreciate Mr. Tatum for informing everyone the first weekend in August so we can begin to prepare. The online only portion is clearly the safest option for parents who choose not to send their students back to school just yet. The hybrid option does seem like the safest possible way to have children return to school two days a week with their same teacher, and then continue their learning online for the remainder of the week. I’m not clear how exactly this option will work for special area teachers, but I am confident that the committees that were working on these plans consisted of special area teachers as well and that the clarification will be made by district supervisors in the coming days.”

“I think everyone knew there was no option that was going to make everyone happy during these difficult times, but I feel like Union did the best they could in a timely manner to accommodate the unfortunate times of this pandemic that we’re living in,” continued the teacher.  "I, personally, am ready to move forward in this new (temporary) normal with a positive attitude for our students and families. I guess I’ll just have to learn to smile with my eyes while wearing a mask, and pray that we have air conditioning in all the buildings come September.”

Other

“Thank you to the staff, parents and members of the community on all the committees for working so diligently to develop plans for the reopening of our district,” said Board of Education President Nancy Minneci.  “This is a very difficult time with still so many unknowns.  I ask everyone to be patient and know that we are here for all students with everyone's best interest and health paramount in planning for school's reopening.”

In his message, Tatum added that the plan is subject to change, based upon executive orders from the governor’s office and revised CDC regulations.  He said on August 28, families will receive a Welcome Back Letter from school principal.