Return to school: Two in-person days, three distance learning days

West Milford. ‘Return To School Plan’ presented at the West Milford Township School Board Meeting.

23 Jul 2020 | 12:38

‘Return To School Plan’ presented at the West Milford Township School Board Meeting

Dr. Alex Anemone, the superintendent of West Milford Township Public Schools (WMTPS), presented the administration’s recommendations for a “Return To School Plan” at the July 21 Board of Education meeting.

School districts are required by the state to submit such a plan that is in compliance with current state pandemic restrictions to their respective Executive County Superintendents/County Department of Education a minimum of four weeks prior to the district’s scheduled first day of school for the 2020-2021 school year. School ddistricts must also inform families of the plan so they have time to make any necessary special arrangements for their children due to abbreviated school day scheduling, and combined in-person and virtual/distance learning models.

The first day of school for WMTPS is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 1.

Planning for modified re-opening

The last day that all West Milford school district buildings were open was March 13, due to the mandatory quarantine implemented by the State of New Jersey. West Milford schools implemented a “Distance Learning” model for all students beginning on March 16th.

Gov. Phil Murphy announced on May 4 that all New Jersey school buildings would remain closed for the remainder of the school year due to continuing pandemic concerns.

WMTPS concluded the remainder of the school year with modified distance learning plans until the last scheduled day of school on June 19.

Two options

Two plan options were presented to the school board to choose from, via majority vote, to submit to the county for approval.

The “Return To School Plan” submitted by the school district for the new school year, after approval by the County, will be implemented and/or adjusted as needed; and pending “Data Determination Dates” from the state. According to the Governor, these dates will be based upon Coronavirus/Covid-19 transmission rate data.

School districts throughout the state face a tremendous task in attempting to formulate back-to-school plans that:

● Meet the educational needs and requirements for all general education and special education students in grades K-12 within the confines of the state’s pandemic recovery plan - including any and all quarantine restrictions, and requirements for sanitizing, use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and social-distancing;

● Ensure a safe and healthy learning environment for all students and staff;

● Provide safe, socially- distanced, and frequently sanitized classrooms, transportation, outdoor/indoor dining, school arrival, departure and between-class hallway travel;

● Accommodate additional needs (and comply with state and federal requirements of such needs) that present major concerns and challenges for many families throughout the entire school community - for things such as: free/reduced fee breakfast and lunch programs, after school care for students of full-time working double income and single-parent households;

● And more... all in the face of continuing, uncertain pandemic circumstances and changing safety restrictions and mandates from the state.

Plan for Sept. 1, 2020

Anemone presented two plan options to the school board for consideration. The plans were created through the collaborative efforts of School Administrators, the School Board’s Education Committee, Teachers/Staff, and Parents/School Community members.

A “Restart Committee” was formed on May 5, with six meetings held throughout May, June and early July.

On June 22nd, the district tallied the results of more than 1,200 family responses to a “Distance Learning Survey.” On July 6, more than 1,500 responses were collected from a “Parent Mini-Survey.”

The Board of Education’s “Education Committee” met, reviewed and discussed the collected data and suggestions, state requirements, options, and recommendations to be presented to the school board as a whole for discussion and vote on July 21.

Anemone said both plans that were presented are workable, but each also have their own pluses and minuses.

Both plans consisted of a combination of in-person and “Virtual”/ “Distance Learning” methods, with students split into two groups.

Each group would attend school on specific “in-person days” and also have designated “distance learning days” each week to address social distancing requirements in classrooms, cafeterias, and on buses.

All in-person attendance days will be early dismissal days for students so that teachers (who will be working full days) will be able to accommodate all students (in-person and distance learning) each day.

Distance learning will be more structured, and pre-pandemic grading scales and rubrics will be re-instituted for all students.

Following Anemone’s the School Board Trustees held an extensive discussion on the options prior to voting for one plan.

“Plan A” which alternated student groups every day between in-person and distance learning, and alternated entire groups every other Friday, was voted down 3-6, with Trustees Teresa Dwyer, Kate Romeo and Cortney Stephenson in favor of the plan, and Trustees Michael Conklin, Nicole Fritz, Ray Guarino, David Ofshinsky, Jaycen Stillman, and Lynda VanDyk voting against it.

The “Alternate Plan”/ “Plan B” featuring two consecutive in-person days and three distance learning days, with Wednesdays designated as distance learning days for all students, and dedicated for deep cleaning and sanitizing of school buildings between the in-person days of the two groups: passed by a vote of 7-2.

Trustees Dwyer and Stephenson cast the two opposing votes. Their opposition was primarily based upon a comment made by Director of Special Services Elizabeth McQuade, stating that some parents of students with special needs had expressed concerns and difficulties with distance learning that their children experienced this past spring.

She also said that some students with specific special needs requirements tend to benefit more from daily contact with teachers and staff.

Anemone said they will continue to “tweak” and modify the “Return To School Plan” through August as needed, and/or as directed by the state and county.

The overall consensus of the board was to try to provide some continuity through a set schedule for the approximately four-thousand students in the district and for staff members as well; utilizing demonstrated best learning practices, addressing pandemic-related health and safety concerns through daily cleaning and sanitizing as well as deep cleaning and sanitizing of school buildings between different groups of students, and providing some stability and consistency for students, teachers, and families in the midst of these uncertain times - through a routine schedule.

Many families will face personal scheduling challenges due to the limitations that a pandemic-restricted school schedule presents, as well as work-related limitations for time off or schedule adjustments for parents that recently returned to work or began a new job due to covid-related layoffs and business closures. Consistent school schedules will hopefully make scheduling and planning for things such as after-school care, special transportation arrangements, etc., a bit easier for struggling families.

But in order to inform the school community about the proposed plan with as much notice as possible, Anemone posted a brief update regarding the “Return to School Plan” on his “Superintendent Blog” on July 22. An email with a link to the update was also sent out to WMTPS families and staff members, in which Anemone stated: “We will continue to work on refining this and welcome feedback from all stakeholders. Thank you for all you do for our students. Stay safe and healthy.”

The following is an excerpt from Anemone’s blog post update:

● Students will attend school on a split-schedule with early dismissal.

● Half of our students will attend school on A Days (Monday and Tuesday) and half of our students will attend schools on B Days (Thursday and Friday). All students will learn from home for a distance learning day on Wednesday. Principals will assign students to either an A Day schedule or a B Day schedule. If you have a preference, please communicate it directly with your school principal. We will make every effort to accommodate you.

● Students, when not in school, will participate in distance learning activities from home. For example, on Monday and Tuesday, all B Day students will participate in distance learning. On Thursday and Friday, all A Day students will participate in distance learning. On Wednesday, all students will participate in distance learning activities. A schedule of class times and activities for distance learning days will be shared once they are finalized

● Some students enrolled in specific special education programs or reading programs may be eligible to attend school on both A Days (Monday and Tuesday) and B Days (Thursday and Friday).

● Student attendance on distance learning days is mandatory and will be checked daily.

● Grading rubrics, modified during the spring, will return to their traditional pre-pandemic status.

● Masks or face coverings will be mandatory in school and on the bus.

● Social distancing will be required in school and on the bus.

● Back to School Night will be switched to a virtual event this fall.

● Parents will have the option of selecting a 100% distance learning option for their child. This option will have no in-school days.

Please note, this plan is subject to approval by the Executive County Superintendent and may be changed due to additional Executive Orders. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact my office.”...

Anemone’s full presentation of the WMTPS “Return To School Plan” to the school board, as well as questions asked, and the discussion of the Board of Education members at the July 21st public meeting, can be viewed via link on the district’s website at wmtps.org. Click on the three lines in the center of the black border right below the WMTPS Title and Highlander Deer Logo for the drop-down menu, click on the + symbol next to “Board”, then click “Board Meeting Video Library”. From there you will be able to select the 07/21/2020 meeting video to view.

Anemone’s “Superintendent Blog” updates are also available on the district website homepage at wmtps.org; or you can use the following link to go directly to the blog page: https://westmilfordsupt.wordpress.com/2020/07/22/return-to-school-plan/

Anemone stated that the district will be requesting that families notify them

by August 15th (via their School Principal or direct contact to the District Administration/ Board Central Office) if they wish to select the100% distance learning option for their child (with no scheduled in-school days), and also if they choose to drive their child to school each day rather than using the district’s school bus transportation.