UNION, NJ - Three committees of Union educators and parents tasked with presenting school reopening guidelines for the upcoming school year outlined their recommendations to the Union Board of Education during a virtual meeting on Tuesday, July 21.

The proposals put forth were preliminary, with most of the guidelines focusing around supporting a “hybrid reopening.”

The plan entails Union’s students splitting their time between classroom learning at a safe social distance and at-home “distance learning.” The plan would commence with the start of the new school year in September.

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Tuesday’s board meeting occurred in the wake of a statement released by Governor Phil Murphy Monday July 20, where he announced remote learning would be an option available to students going into the next school year. The significance of the governor's announcement means Union families will have a state sanctioned remote learning option in addition to the hybrid proposal shared by the educator-parent committees going into the 2020-2021 school year.

According to Murphy’s statements Monday, the governor expects details and guidelines surrounding the remote learning option to be released by the state later this week.

Even with the decision to incorporate a “distance learning” option for students coming from the state only a day before Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, the Union schools committees had already conceived a framework for at-home virtual learning.

The Educational Redesign Committee, co-chaired by Union High School math teacher Cheryle Fiske and parent Alex Salis, discussed plans surrounding a district “distance learning” option called ‘Virtual Academy’ — an online learning option that could hire teachers for full-time virtual instruction.  Fiske stressed Virtual Academy's online “distance learning” platform would provide students with real time access to their teachers in a virtual classroom setting. 

Many members of the public who tuned into the meeting were left wanting more details surrounding the virtual “distance learning” framework outlined by the Educational Redesign Committee.  The public also asked the Board for information regarding what the process would be for any finalized plan. 

Members of the community who spoke during the public portion of the meeting expressed frustration with the lack of information from the Board of Education with the hope that more updates surrounding the district's plan for reopening will be forthcoming given the evolving nature of the current health crisis.

Hybrid Framework

The three committees who unveiled their recommendations for the 2020-2021 school year consisted of an Educational Redesign Committee; a Sanitation and Safety Committee and a Social and Emotional Learning Committee,  all of whom laid out in great detail policy recommendations to help guide the district toward a safe reopening come September amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The committees presented a framework for reopening schools in a hybrid model which would see “clusters” of students occupying the classrooms of a particular building on different days.

According to the presentations, there would be four clusters or groups of students occupying classrooms throughout the week.  Clusters A and B would be in school on Mondays and Tuesdays while adhering to strict safety guidelines like social distancing and the mandatory wearing of a face mask within classrooms and on busses. There would be no classroom learning on Wednesdays and the day would be used for “deep cleaning” in the schools in preparation for the arrival of student clusters D and C who would have their in-classroom learning on Thursdays and Fridays.  Wednesday would be a remote learning day for all students.

Plans for the high school, middle schools and elementary schools are similar but vary in their details with subcommittees providing a working framework for grade levels.

This includes safety expectations where younger students in the lower grades are expected to have difficulty maintaining social distancing rules and keeping their face masks on.

Safety Measures

The committees outlined various preventive safety procedures to help curtail any potential spreading of the COVID-19 virus. The safety framework was taken from the guidelines outlined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Part of the proposed plan would see students and teachers being asked to fill out a questionnaire before entering school each day. The questionnaire will ask students and teachers questions designed to screen for COVID-19 symptoms. For teachers, this questionnaire will double as their employee “sign-in” method.

In regard to students, the questionnaire proposal was motivated by the extreme logistical difficulty for the district in administering temperature tests for all students entering the school.  In addition to the questionnaire, the committee proposal includes asking parents to take the temperature of their children before getting on a bus or entering a school.

According to the Safety and Sanitation Committee members, parents will be asked to sign a document in which they agree to pick up their child within 30 minutes if their children are showing COVID-19 symptoms in school.

The hybrid framework suggests special isolation rooms be created adjacent to the nurses office where students displaying symptoms can be isolated while waiting for their guardians to retrieve them.  The committee emphasized children who are isolated will be under the constant supervision of school staff and the school nurse as they await pickup.

The hybrid plan acknowledges the potential difficulty maintaining social distancing and the mandatory mask rules among younger children.

Additionally, committee members anticipate some faculty members and students with medical conditions might not be able to wear a mask throughout the day. These faculty members and students include those with existing medical conditions and disabilities.  Other methods of personal protection equipment (PPE) would have to be purchased by the district to maintain appropriate safety guidelines for those individuals the committee proposal noted.

According to the district, all the recommendations provided by the committees is a framework designed to help shape a final plan expected be unveiled in the weeks to come.

The next Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, August 18, through the online meeting platform zoom.