UNION, NJ – There are still many unanswered questions from concerned parents after Union schools Superintendent Gregory Tatum spoke at a Township of Union Facebook Live Q&A meeting Tuesday evening regarding the 2020-2021 district reopening plan.
Over 400 viewers watched the Q&A event, hosted by Union mayor Michele Delisfort. “The Township Committee members and I have received a lot of emails and correspondence about what is going to happen in September regarding the schools,” said Delisfort, “and we thought it would be great to have the superintendent come out and talk to all of us and answer any inquiries you all might have.”
“The plan we have was designed with the needs of all of our families and members of our facility in mind,” said Tatum. The plan, distributed just over a week ago, outlines the two educational platforms being offered for Union students: Full-time virtual and hybrid (mix of in-person and virtual) learning. Tatum said the plan follows CDC guidelines and executive orders from the governor’s office.
During the meeting Tatum said there is a possibility of staff shortage for the upcoming year. He said there are 117 staff members who may not return due to health concerns “and another 200 with the same issues. We may have over 300 teachers that because of health reasons may not return. That may very well push us towards a virtual opening of schools. But, that’s yet to be seen and discussed with the Board of Education. There’s a possibility we may end up amending the calendar a little bit, depending on what our needs are during that Labor Day vacation.”
“Schools have a critical role, first and foremost, to protect the health, safety and welfare of students, teachers, and other school staff and families in our community,” said Delisfort.
In response to a question from Delisfort on what preventative behaviors at school teachers, staff and students can take, Tatum said, “the most important aspect of all of this is following guidelines for social distancing. We’re trying to ensure everyone has the appropriate guidelines presented by CDC as well as putting in provisions that will help keep them safe.”
Delisfort said results of the July 8 survey indicated 69.2 percent of parents were interested in virtual learning, but results from the July 27 survey showed 48.9 percent were interested in the virtual platform. “That’s a big switch in three weeks. Can you explain why?”
“One of the issues we find in the development of this plan and taking information through data collection is there’s been an abundance of changes in regulations that come out almost daily,” answered Tatum. “As issues change, so do some of our responses.”
Tatum said 2,641 parents have selected the virtual platform for their child for the upcoming school year, and 2,040 have selected the hybrid model. Tatum added that 2,700 have not yet responded. Any students who do not respond, Tatum said, will be placed into the hybrid platform.
In response to a question about the number of students in each kindergarten class, Tatum said, “the numbers in the classroom are based upon the collection of the data. The problem is based upon the current enrollment in buildings, and where those numbers actually fall, you’re going to have to subtract the number of students who are going to be doing virtual and then determine how many students are going to be doing the hybrid program, and then divide it by the number of sections you have in that particular building.” Tatum said there may be between 12 to 14 students in a class. “That’s just hypothetically depending on where the numbers fall.”
On class size, Tatum said it depends on the size of the room. “There’s really no maximum. It’s about regulations and social distancing.”
On the issue of partitioning classrooms, Tatum said they are looking at ways to partition the rooms, but “the main thing is social distancing that we have to make sure we maintain. The more equipment in a room and based upon the square footage in the room, depends on how many students we can get into the room.”
About the virtual classroom hours, Tatum said “we intend to try to stay as close to the normal school schedule as possible.”
In answer to the question of whether teaching sessions be recorded to be watched and worked on later, Tatum said, “there’s some manner in which they’ll be doing video presentations and those I believe can be retrieved later on. We have to be careful what regulations say about being able to record information.” He said that issue needs to be discussed with the teacher’s union and school board attorney.”
“A great deal of training has been going on over summer (on teaching platforms),” said Tatum. “Our technology team is very proficient in safety regulations.” Tatum said it will be the district’s technology and legal teams who will “undertake those issues.”
On the issue of improvements to the HVAC (ventilation) system in the schools, Tatum said they have been working with “a group to deal with the HVAC system.” He said he needs to get an update on the issue, but believes work was being done at the high school.
The question of whether social distancing will be maintained during class changes was presented. Teacher and Educational Redesign Committee member Cheryl Fiske said, “there is a plan for staggered entry and exit times from classes to try to keep the number of students in the hallway at a minimum.” Fiske said the hallways will be designated as one direction. She said security personnel and administrators will make sure students are as far apart as possible. Without locker usage, Fiske said, there will not be so many students stopping in the hallways. “We’re trying to keep the congestion down.”
About ‘mask breaks’ for pre-k through second grader students, Tatum said, “knowing what we know about that age and temperament, I would image in the plans that will come from the building level they will have all those areas worked out; that’s part of scheduling.”
Tatum said the transportation committee is working on a plan for busing and determining how many students will be permitted on a bus. Regarding lunch, Tatum said the cafeteria staff is working very closely with building principals. “Right now, there will be use of the cafeterias with the appropriate social distancing and maintaining the sanitation as described in our plan.”
A parent submitted a question about in-home ADA services for children with disabilities. Tatum said, “that is an area we are still working very diligently on with our attorneys.” He said that information will be “forthcoming”. Whether assessments will be in place to determine regression for students with disabilities, Tatum said “we have to look at this area closely, but I’m not sure there’s an actual assessment to assess that for our special needs students, but I’ll bring this to our Special Services Department.”
Supervisor of Athletics and Health Linda Ionta responded to a question about athletic programs and competition. She said competition will take place, mostly against county teams. She said they are planning on at least two competitions per week beginning October 1. County tournaments are being planned, “but that could change tomorrow. As of today, that’s where we are. We’re moving forward and we’re going to try to make this work.”
Tatum said classroom tours prior to school beginning is under the building principals’ direction and “I’ll certainly relate it to them.”
In response to a question about the procedure for the possibility of a student or staff member contracting COVID-19, Ionta said there will be contact tracers in each building. She said the district will be in touch with Marconi Gapas, the Union Board of Health Director. “A decision will then be made on what happens in the building.” She said if something happens in a classroom or in a pod, parents will be notified.
With virtual learning, will real-time questions be permitted. “My understanding is yes,” said Tatum. There’s supposed to be regular interaction going on.” Teacher and Educational Redesign Committee member Jackie Vincent said, “the virtual classroom will be much like a regular classroom. There will be live sessions where students and teachers will interact and there will be lessons taught virtually live. But there will be times when students will be not live, doing their assignments, but have an opportunity to ask their teachers questions also through the GoogleChat feature or when they come back on live.”
“There have been great strides in training for teachers and different programs being used,” added Fiske. “The norm will be that contact, that back-and-forth conversation where it’s real time interaction with staff members.”
On whether the Board of Education was in unanimous agreement on the details of the reopening plan, Board President Nancy Minneci said, "we listened to the committes and took everything under advisement. There was not a vote because we still have the virtual and the hybrid (platform) that is available to our students."
“I know people want to have more information and discussion as possible and we want to do that, that’s why we’re here tonight and any other communication we do going forward,” added Tatum. “We certainly will try to have more and more information based upon our work and our numbers that we do have available to us.” Parents are expected to receive a Welcome Back Letter from their school principal on August 28, Tatum confirmed.