With novel pandemic comes novel ways Boards of Education are handling business as usual

With the novel coronavirus pandemic comes novel ways public school Boards of Education are handling business as usual.

Edison Township Public Schools

The Edison Board of Education used a Zoom Video Communications virtual meeting room to hold its regular meeting on March 23.

After 15 minutes of technical challenges from members not being able to get into the meeting, and after audio issues, the meeting was up and running. About 100 people, including board members, school officials and members of the public, were in attendance.

When a problem arose, Ralph Barca, chief information technology officer for the Edison Township Public Schools, was able to fix it from his home.

“We are committed to doing our part to help during this challenging time,” a spokesperson from Zoom said. “When employees are not able to get to the office, when teams cannot travel to see customers, and when students cannot participate in on-site classes, Zoom provides a platform where they can still be productive with just a free Zoom Meetings license. We’re scheduling informational sessions and on-demand resources so anyone can learn how to use the Zoom platform with ease and at their convenience.”

Edison BOE Attorney Hope Blackburn, of The Busch Law Group LLC, said, through Gov. Phil Murphy, amendments were made to the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), allowing for virtual meetings held in virtual locations instead of a physical location. The amendments also allow for virtual public notices for meetings.

“This is new, this is novel for us,” Edison Schools Superintendent Bernard Bragen Jr. said, adding his thoughts and prayers are with the community members affected with COVID-19. “We have had a few staff members who tested positive.”

As the district moves forward “there are some sticky points, bumps in the road and we will continue to work through those. Our team is doing an excellent job navigating that,” the superintendent said.

Bragen, during the meeting, said online, remote learning for the approximately 16,880 students in the district, which commenced on March 17 in the wake of COVID-19, continues to evolve and refine as time goes on.

The success rate of online, remote learning ranges from 90-99% as the district assesses the learning on the secondary and elementary levels, he said.

“While those percentages are high and those not engaged are very small, we are using all our resources – our guidance counselors and attendance officers, our administration – for whatever issues that may arise,” Bragen said.

The superintendent said emergency operations are functioning and everyone is doing their part to appropriately protect themselves.

All food distributions and computer device/repairs are based in two central locations on the opposite sides of the township – Edison High School on the south end and John P. Stevens High School on the north end.

Bragen said the Chartwells Food Services staff has done an “excellent” job preparing and packaging breakfast and lunches and the transportation crew are on ready to deliver on a daily basis. Some 3,000 students are eligible for free and reduced lunches in the district.

Board President Ralph Errico said everyone is going through “unchartered times.”

“It is much more difficult in what the teachers are doing right now than what it would be to write weekly lesson plans and go into a classroom in front of 20-25 students,” he said.

Errico applauded the administration, teachers and the parents for their efforts as they continue to improve the remote, online learning. He said the board will continue to use Zoom for committee meetings.

Metuchen Public School District

The Metuchen Board of Education held a virtual meeting through Cisco Webex on March 24.

Board President Justin Manley, who uses Webex in his line of work, led the meeting.

“I worked with Dr. [Vincent] Caputo and our attorney to ensure we could conduct the meeting via WebEx and made the decision to stay on our regularly scheduled meeting calendar,” he said “We have asked our teachers and students to adjust and I thought it was important that the board demonstrate we could do the same.”

Manley said overall the meeting went “OK.”

“We had about 50 members of the public in addition to the board members and administration,” he said. “As you might imagine, there were audio challenges with people not muting their phones, but overall I am glad we did it. Like everything the district is doing right now, we will get better as things go along.”

Manley and School Business Administrator Michael Harvier were at the school’s board office during the meeting. With the amendments to the OPMA, Manley said the board intends to continue the BOE’s regularly scheduled meetings virtually throughout the emergency.

“As usual, we will also continue to record the meetings and make them available via Facebook, YouTube and the Metuchen Media channel,” he said.

Caputo, during the meeting, said the district is prepared for remote, online learning, which commenced on March 16, if it lasts throughout the school year.

He said the teachers and staff have been given flexibility – with guidelines – on interacting virtually with their students whether it is through email, Webex, Google Classroom, Zoom and ClassDojo.

Caputo said the response when students hear and see their teachers’ faces is overwhelming.

With the district’s recent strong stance on addressing mental health programming and emotional support for all their students, Caputo said with the unprecedented circumstances, they are doing the best they can to continue to support students, who may be struggling in the self-isolation environment.

“We need to be very, very cognizant in terms of support,” he said.

In November, the Metuchen School District received public support to address the needs of the district’s most struggling students on the middle and elementary school levels through a therapeutic program and additional resources.

Wellness checks are made to those students who are not engaging with their teachers, Caputo said.

Some parents called into the meeting and suggested consistency across the teachers and expressed concerns about grading.

School officials said they are continuing to work on the balance all the while allowing for the individual flexibility for teachers. As far as grading, Caputo said learning will continue and teaching and grading will be different.

Further, Caputo said the district is continuing its services with essential employees – bus drivers and bus aides delivering lunches for students eligible for free and reduced lunches, maintenance and custodian staff making sure the school buildings are maintained, and the IT staff making sure online, remote learning is happening.

He added the advisors and coaches of clubs and sports, which are an integral part of the school experience, will connect with their students virtually.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@newspapermediagroup.com.