WESTFIELD, NJ — The local public school district plans to be open for full-time in-person instruction in September, but school officials could not tell parents Tuesday if a full reopening by the end of this academic year is possible.

“If we could come up with a date, we would let you know, but there are too many variables,” said Board President Amy Root said at Tuesday's school board meeting.

Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan said the district will be “watching the COVID data” as more students enter the buildings in the coming weeks.

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Dolan said middle school students will be able to attend school for five in-person mornings starting April 12. She also said many students, who have been attending remotely, will soon join the small amount of Westfield High School students attending four mornings in-person.

Students in kindergarten through fifth grade whose families chose in-person instruction are in school five days a week, according to the superintendent.

Gov. Phil Murphy has said New Jersey schools must re-open for full-time in-person instruction for the 2021-22 academic year, a statement Westfield Education Association Vice President Kim Dickey said teachers in the district appreciate.

“All of us are looking forward to going back in September,” Dickey said in an interview. “We want our kids in front of us.”

The governor had originally said “we are expecting Monday through Friday, in-person, every school, every district,” but he later clarified that there can be virtual options for students and teachers at higher risk for a severe case of COVID-19.

It will be up to districts to manage how remote learning for those with compromising conditions work, Murphy said.

Dickey said she is concerned about the workload for teachers if they still will have to teach remotely in these cases, and is awaiting how the district’s new superintendent will address this challenge after Dolan’s retirement in July.

“The hardest thing for teachers is teaching students in front of them as well as teaching to a computer screen,” said Dickey. The dual teaching methods alter how teachers can move around the classroom and make it difficult to organize collaborative group work, she said.

Teachers have been eligible to receive COVID vaccines since March, and while they have struggled with the limited availability of appointments, both Dolan and Dickey described an active community effort to get teachers their vaccination appointments, with everyone from PTO members to retired secretaries and neighbors pitching in to find slots for school staff.

“A lot of us have been able to get vaccinated,” Dickey said. Recently, she said the Union County Education Association offered Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccines to teachers in the district.

As of April 19, all individuals 16 and older will be eligible for vaccinations in New Jersey.

But Dolan said much of the virus transmission is between school-aged children, and she expects more change to come when the vaccine is proven safe for younger individuals. 

Board member Robert Garrison noted that Westfield’s latest coronavirus numbers indicate 95 cases were in persons 19 and younger. The figures from the Westfield Regional Health Department show that teenagers 10 – 19 represented the most highly impacted age group at 26% of Westfield's reported COVID-19 cases in March.

Despite this prevalence of COVID-19 among Westfield’s youth, there will be situations where student desks are less than six feet apart, which is permissible under the latest CDC guidelines and Murphy’s advice. The district FAQ says plexiglass dividers will be used for those classrooms where 6 feet distance is not possible between desks.

Dickey said students are still placed 6 feet from the teachers’ desks, and teachers who feel uncomfortable with closer contact can still choose to remain 6 feet from students.

With the reduced distancing, she said “parents will have to acknowledge that if there are positive cases, a number of students will have to quarantine.”

The state does not require teachers to be vaccinated and the district is not recording data on teachers’ vaccinations, Dolan said. However, answering questions from board members, she said it is possible the state will require students to be vaccinated once the vaccine is approved for them.

Parents at the meeting asked for minutes of the Restart Committee, which discusses health concerns and plans for school reopening, to be made public.

However, Root said the committee is a “steering committee” that includes town officials and while two board members are on it, it is not a board committee. No recorded minutes of the meetings are kept, she said.

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