HOWELL – Educators in the Howell K-8 School District are working to come up with a plan to reopen the district’s schools in September.
Schools in Howell and the rest of New Jersey were closed by order of Gov. Phil Murphy in March as the Garden State felt the impact of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Students completed the 2019-20 school year through remote (virtual) learning at home.
Murphy has approved the reopening of schools for the 2020-21 school year with social distancing and social interaction guidelines in place.
On July 2, the members of the Board of Education’s Community Interaction Committee met to discuss the district’s reopening process.
Superintendent of Schools Joseph Isola said he believes it is important to talk about what has happened in regard to the pandemic.
What occurred in March when schools were directed to close was what superintendents refer to as “a snow day decision,” he said.
“Basically, half the community is thankful you exercised caution and closed due to inclement weather, while the other half thinks you are a jerk and school should be open,” Isola said.
“We were charged to get organized with a remote learning plan and within 48 hours that plan was up and running, and ready to go.
“We are very fortunate that we are sound in terms of the technology, equipment, and licensing and software we posses, and being a Future Ready New Jersey certified district really paid dividends here, quite frankly,” Isola said.
The initial remote learning plan was for two weeks and Isola said, “I want the community to recognize … that (the remote learning plan) happened piecemeal. We did not get a marching order that we were going to be closed from March 13 to June 30. At the beginning it was two weeks.”
However, schools remained closed and Isola said educators made adjustments to the remote learning plan on the fly.
“The saying I have heard time and again from the New Jersey Department of Education really resonated. The saying is ‘We are building the plane as we are flying it.’
“Now that is dangerous work, but that is where school districts across our country, certainly here in New Jersey, found themselves. They found themselves building the plane they were flying,” the superintendent said.
Isola said the remote learning plan would have been different if educators had known in March that schools would be closed until June.
Following Isola’s opening remarks, the discussion turned to what the district’s administration is planning for the September reopening of Howell’s K-8 schools.
“We are required to open our doors, to every extent possible, to in-person instruction. This (requirement) is not negotiable with the Department of Education, which we are bound to comply with,” Isola said.
“There will be in-person instruction, with the caveat that (individuals) must properly social distance (themselves), or make accommodations to non-socially distant environments.
“Social distance by the Governor’s report is clear, it is 6 feet. You can understand why in a public school setting 6 feet is challenging,” he said.
If children and/or staff members cannot be properly social distanced they will be required to a wear a mask The only time staff members may remove a mask is if they are in an office or a room by themselves, or if they are 6 feet apart from others.
“In a classroom that has students in it, if the teacher is going to walk around to provide support, he or she should be wearing a mask while doing so. There will be a lot of conversation around that,” Isola said.
The superintendent said the topics of transportation to and from school and food service in school will be challenging to address.
Board of Education member Ira Thor said one question parents will have will be about bus transportation to and from school.
“Based on the recommendations … (busing) is obviously going to be a very complicated issue. How we are going to keep everybody safe on the bus and still be able to keep the routes as efficient as possible?” Thor asked.
Assistant Superintendent Ronald Sanasac said there were no answers as of July 2. He said the important part of the committee meetings is honing in on the right questions.
“There are quite a few impediments. If we go with the most stringent suggestion, which is a limit of 11 people on a full-size bus, which would be a driver and 10 pupils, and I am saying this somewhat anecdotally, but there are not enough buses in New Jersey to get the kids to school, let alone drivers who could do that,” Sanasac said.
He said buses could transport more than 10 students, but if that is the option that is selected, everyone on the bus will have to wear a mask.
Marc Parisi, who serves as a citizen member of the committee, asked several questions about food services.
“You can’t eat with a mask on. Are we going to be eating in classrooms? Are we going to be eating in cafeterias (practicing) social distancing?” he asked.
Isola said administrators are weighing the option of an abbreviated school day, as well as options regarding food services and the provision of food to students who rely on the school district for a nutritious meal each day.
The superintendent said he hopes to present a reopening plan for the district’s schools at the Aug. 5 meeting of the Board of Education.