The West Windsor-Plainsboro School District has released the details of its plan to reopen schools in September.
Although most families would have preferred to keep their kids at home schools closed and continue with at-home learning, WW-P must conduct some type of in-person instruction to comply with a mandate by Gov. Phil Murphy that all districts in the state hold classes in brick and mortar buildings.
The current plan calls for in-person hybrid and virtual models, and the district has asked families to choose a preference for their children attending WWPSD schools.
The hybrid model is an A-week/B-week schedule. For one week, students will attend in-person classes during the morning, then be dismissed and return home for afternoon virtual instruction. During the second week, students would stay at home for virtual synchronous instruction.
The virtual model will be different from the virtual/remote learning that was used during the spring. Virtual learning will include scheduled synchronous learning, live interaction with teachers, and mandatory participation times.
In June, the state Department of Education issued guidance on the reopening of schools in September in a 104-page document titled, The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education.
“This guidance is deeply informed by the feedback from district superintendents, charter school leads, educators, and a variety of education and community-based stakeholder groups,” said state education commissioner Lamont Repollet in the document.
“Each district will be expected to develop, in collaboration with community stakeholders, a plan to reopen schools in the Fall that best fits the district’s local needs,” Repollet said. “To ensure consistency with respect to the health and safety of our school communities across the state, you will find throughout this guidance that the areas that speak specifically to those health and safety measures are identified as Anticipated Minimum Standards.”
Those minimum standards require school districts to adopt a policy for screening students and employees for symptoms of COVID-19 on a daily basis and to enforce social distancing within classrooms and on school buses.
The plan states that in order to ensure physical distancing, additional modifications should be put in place, including physical barriers between desks and turning desks to face the same direction. Each school district must also adopt cleaning and disinfecting procedures.
Superintendent David Aderhold, in a video message on July 9, updated the community on the reopening plan. He said that WWPSD officials had been “tearing through” the Road Back, and were looking at the district’s building and bus capacities.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “we’re going to be upholding every safety standard possible to make sure that those individuals that come on site to the school district have the safest experience possible, and that everything we’re doing is grounded through health, wellness and safety.”
Aderhold said the district is still in the early planning stages, but he wanted to update parents as much as possible about the situation.
“First and foremost, staff and student safety is our number one priority when we think about re-entering in the fall… Obviously everything we’re doing is through the lens of health, safety and wellness,” Aderhold said.
He said the district has been making a number of purchases to prepare for the school year. The district has ordered more than a quarter-million masks, face shields, some 800 gallons of hand sanitizer, temperature scanners and door entry temperature scanners.
The district will be implementing wellness checks—including asking families to conduct temperature screenings every day before putting their kids on school buses. Masks will be required to be worn by all adults and students on buses and school buildings.
“I know it’s a very difficult concept for some of us,” he said. “As the father of five, I completely get the concern with respect to masking, but what we know is that masking is one of the only things that we can do, besides social distancing, to really help prevent the spread of the virus. We owe it to each other to be wearing masks.”
He said if a child has a medical condition that would preclude the child from wearing a mask, the district will require medical documentation and then make individual accommodations for the student.
As for plans for the school day, Aderhold said, “it’s not going to be a normal school year. In fact, it’s going to be far from normal.”
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The governor’s requirement to hold in-person classes for students is counter to an earlier survey conducted by the district, in which a number parents expressed their preference for virtual learning to continue.
“There are many families that, no matter what we do with respect to opening regarding safety measures, have made it very clear that they want a virtual model,” Aderhold said.
Aderhold said that more than 60% of elementary families responded that they prefer a virtual-only model, 55% of middle school families want a virtual-only model and half of high school parents prefer virtual learning.
“Please know that if you’re struggling with some discussions at home with your children,” he said, “you’re not alone in fears, you’re not alone in your desires to have a multitude of models, and just please know that we’re going to do our best to accommodate those as best we can.”
He also pointed out that the district doesn’t have, “outright permission to run a virtual-only model. The (state) plan is silent on that but it is intimated that it’s that it’s allowable, based on unique circumstances in the needs of your local community.”
At the beginning of July, the district asked parents to choose their preferred model for each child in their home that will be attending the WWPSD in 2020-21. Aderhold said the district needs the information as soon as possible to finalize its plans.
He said that the district had locked in its high school schedule based on student choices made in June. “So to do this work, we’re going to have to redo a lot of work that we’ve already done,” he said. “We’re more than willing, and we have to do that, but just know that we’re under a time crunch, which is why we’re asking you for specific data to come back very fast.”
Aderhold went into some details about the way the hybrid model might work. He said that based on guidance from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and the state’s Road Back plan, the number of kids allowed on a school bus with a capacity of 54 children would be 11—about 20 percent.
Since more than 95 percent of WW-P’s students are bused, the district realistically can only have about 20% of students on-site. If 50% of the families choose to go all-virtual, that means WW-P can go to an every other day or every other week model for the remaining 50% who choose the hybrid model. School officials believe they can safely accomodate 12 to 14 students per classroom, which is about 50% capacity of what the district normally runs.
Aderhold gave an example of how the hybrid model would work based on those numbers. During the A-week, in a class with 24 students, 12 students would attend in person, while the other 12 would be virtual. The process would be flipped during the B-week.
Aderhold said that for families with multiple children, the district would work to make sure that the entire family is assigned to the same cohort weeks so that their kids will be all going the same week sequence, unless specifically requested for family reasons.
Since schools will be following an early dismissal schedule, students will not be eating lunch on site. “The goal is that we bring students in to focus on core academic areas and then the students are going to go home,” Aderhold said.
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The superintendent also addressed extracurricular activities.
“There’s a really strong probability that we will not be running any after school clubs and activities on grounds,” he said. “For any club and activity that can continue in a virtual environment, we will work to provide those structures so that students have connections with each other.”
Aderhold said that no decision has been made in terms of athletics. The NJSIAA announced on July 10 that the high school fall sports season will start a month later than normal. Aderhold was not optimistic about the possibility of sports happening.
“The Ivy League canceled fall Sports, TCNJ just canceled fall sports and Rutgers is awaiting a decision on fall sports,” he said.
Aderhold added that the NBA and MAjor League Baseball are both struggling with their reopening plans. It would be difficult, he said, for the school district to come up with the “perfect plan” for school sports when billion dollar organizations are struggling.
“We would all be fooling ourselves,” he said. “I’m just going to be honest with you that it’s not looking promising, and I know how much that hurts our students and our families that rely on our co-curricular activities.”