UNION, NJ – Union school Superintendent Gregory Tatum discussed remote learning, the school calendar, special education services, senior activities and more during his appearance at the township’s weekly Facebook Live Question and Answer forum on Thursday, with Mayor Michele Delisfort, State Senator Joseph Cryan and Health Department Director Marconi Gapas.

While Delsifort, Cryan and Gapas provided updates and information and took questions from viewers about COVID-19-related issues, the majority of questions were for Tatum.

In his opening remarks, Tatum said, “throughout this crisis we continue to get updates on procedures and directives from the Commissioner of Education and our Executive County Superintendent of Schools based on those executive orders that come from the governor’s office.  Each of these directives and changes really have a direct impact on the operational procedures of our school district.”

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“Students are engaged in their studies and have had much success in adapting to the innovative ways of learning.”  Spring break for Union students began on April 10.  Lessons resume on Monday, April 20.

A viewer asked Tatum about the parent survey sent two weeks ago asking for a yes or no vote to shortening spring recess in order to finish the school year weeks early.  The viewer said the majority of parents voted to work through spring break.  However, a decision was made “that totally disregarded the results of the survey”.

Tatum responded, “in looking at the results, there was one set of data I took a look at that I thought was very pertinent”;  that is, that the district took into account its senior students.  “The fact that if we ended the school year early, it takes away their ray of hope that of some of the activities they have planned may not take place,” said Tatum.  He said there is much uncertainty around senior activities, “but the senior year (and graduation) is probably the most important time that a person will see in their lives and to put a damper on that at this time of year I just didn’t think was something that was pertinent.”

Tatum added, “I think everyone needs a break right now.  We were thrust into this idea of remote learning, there’s been a lot of uncertainty.”  He said he’s received feedback “that people are tired.”  He said the results of the survey “wasn’t really to make a determination, it was really to get a feel for what people were thinking.”

“The reality of it all is that we have a school calendar that has been adopted by the Board of Education,” added Tatum.  “I would not be able to just unilaterally change the calendar anyway.  I would have to go to the Board, have the Board vote, and then, of course, have it ratified.”  He said the timeline would not have permitted a change to the calendar anyway, since the next Board meeting was not until April 21, “well after the spring break recess would have taken place to begin with.”

“I’m going to stand by the reasons why we made (the decision) and hopefully everyone will have an opportunity to relax, to have some down time, and then get ready to get started at the end of our spring recess,” continued Tatum.

Asked how many parents responded to the survey, Tatum said over 3,000 had completed the survey.  He added, “the majority did say end the school year early.  If I was going to do it, that’d be a strong reason why because a lot of people felt that way, but I’m also thinking about the needs of children, the first or second grader, who is frustrated because they’re not getting their playtime, and the whole idea of really having time with your family.  It’s a holiday break.  The reality of it all is we really want to be sure students and families have that time together.”

On the subject of emotional support for students, Tatum said school counselors are still available to meet the needs of students.  “Feel free to reach out to school counselors via email just as you would during normal school days,” he said.  He added these services are not for students in crisis.  Per procedure, Tatum said, students in crisis should call 911.  Tatum said remote learning has not diminished school spirit.  “I see how everyone is coming together for our students.”

In response to the question of how remote learning is progressing, particularly about attendance procedures, Tatum said, “we meet continuously to go over attendance procedures.  We’ve developed a system where parents can sign in, particularly at the elementary level, to ensure students are getting credit for the school day.”  Tatum said students have a 12-hour window to complete their work. 

Tatum said the district is still working on how exactly attendance is to be taken.  “The reality of it all is that some students don’t sign in, but yet we have evidence that they’re actually doing the work, so we are surely not going to hold the attendance against them.  What we’re not looking to do is to have students work and then not get the credit for the work they’re doing.  So we are working on that issue.”

About grading options, Tatum said, “there’s more and more guidance coming out from the county and state.”  He said right now teachers are grading assignments and doing everything they can to ensure that students are doing well.  “But, some of the criteria is also being relaxed by the state in order to facilitate students being able to move forward, especially the graduation requirements.”

Also regarding grading, Tatum said there is no current pass/fair system.  “Grades will be determined based upon [student’s] work.”  He said he and the Board will be looking at the grading policy to look at the pass/fair option.  “I caution you that when you get to the high school level that’s when things become a little more difficult because of class ranking and college admission issues.  We’re looking at that very carefully.”

Regarding video learning, such as Zoom, Tatum said there have been a lot of restrictions placed regarding the use of video.  “We’ve been working with our legal department very closely monitoring that situation,” he said.  He added there are legal requirements to maintain; for example, not all students are able to be photographed without parental consent.  But, he said, some changes regarding video use for special education providers may be forthcoming.

About plans to use the social media platform Google, which Tatum said is already available in the district, he said it is being finalized right now.  He said the legal department advised that whatever is currently available “we should allow teachers to use remotely because it is their option.  We don’t have a policy that mandates the use of any of that equipment.”  But, Tatum said, teachers are eager and in support of the use of those platforms. 

Asked how teachers are doing with online teaching, Tatum said their biggest obstacle currently are the video issues.  "The idea that this is a brand-new situation brings some level of frustration," he said, "but we are working very closely to ensure teachers are comfortable and to understand we're supportive of them.  They have taken on such a huge, huge responsibility, beyond what they normally do."  

At least one viewer asked if permission slips for photographing can be put on the parent portal Genesis so students can use Google Hangout.  “The issue is not so much the permission slip.  I used that as an example.  We should be close, by the time spring break is over, have answers.”  

In response to a question of why individual accommodations for students with IEPs or those who receive special services are not being offered, Tatum said, “that’s exactly what has been worked on over the last week with the Commissioner’s office.”  Tatum said they did receive a directive that they are relaxing some of those requirements “so we’d be able to provide the extended learning especially to students who have those additional programs.  That is something we are working on right now.”

About teletherapy services, Tatum said, “I’ve had inquiries about that and Special Services Director (Kim) Conti and I have been on the phone for hours discussing how this is going to take place because she has providers, and they are working very hard to make this work.  But there were restrictions.   I think some of those restrictions have been lifted and that’s why it’s going to make it a little bit easier to provide those services now.”

In answer to the question, “will the extended school year program for special services be extended since they have missed out on so much”, Tatum responded, “the answer to that is yes. The thing we are trying to make sure of is that we have the appropriate staff.  One of the issues is we normally hire around this time the staff for the program.  In this case, there are still some unknowns.  More on that.”

In response to a question of having future live broadcasts to “avoid miscommunication”, Tatum said, “absolutely, that’s something we could give some consideration to.  I think the more we communicate, the more information we give, the more comfortable folks will be.” 

Regarding plans for a high school graduation ceremony, Tatum said he and Mark Hoyt, Principal of Union High School have discussed the issue.  Depending on when and if students go back to school, he said they are considering a summer graduation or a virtual graduation.  ”We will have something for our seniors.”