Metuchen batting idea of an alternate week of 50% ‘roomers and Zoomers’ for back-to-school in-person plan

METUCHEN – School officials are batting the idea of an alternate week of 50% “roomers and Zoomers” for its back-to-school in-person plan.

Schools Superintendent Vincent Caputo led an hour panel discussion webinar through Zoom on July 13, covering all aspects of up-to-the-minute thinking from instruction, board operations, school district operations and everything in between.

School districts across the state are expected to submit a back-to-school in-person plan to the state and present it to the community by Aug. 6.

Caputo was joined by Ed Porowski, principal of Campbell Elementary School, to represent building administrators; Tania Herzog, director of special services to represent special education and nursing; Business Administrator Michael Harvier; Board of Education President Justin Manley; Neyda Evans, supervisor of mathematics and technology; and Susan Paredes, former administrator, and co-chair of the Policy Committee.

Carolyn Taylor organized questions from parents before the webinar and questions on the Zoom chat room. At one point, 452 people logged into the webinar.

Caputo said the district has been working on an in-person plan since they closed in March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic knowing there would be a return to in-person school at some point. With the state’s mandate to submit an in-person plan, the question posed to districts is if they can open schools with all students present.

“That’s the position we are supposed to start with,” Caputo said. “If the answer is ‘yes’ how possibly can we do that? If the answer is ‘no,’ which is the much more likely answer, then we have to come up with a hybrid plan.”

Caputo said the district has an effective remote plan in place, which was finetuned during the spring semester. As for a hybrid plan, which the district needs to present before the public in August, there is a need for more state public health guidance, school officials said.

Instruction

Caputo said there are different hybrid models. They are proposing an alternate week schedule with 50% of the students in each grade in the classroom one week and learning remotely another week. The students would have a nine-day break in between the in-classroom and remote learning.

“Students get a routine that way and from all epidemiologists we’ve heard on webinars that is the best for the public health,” he said.

Caputo said typically they would divide the students alphabetically. Officials said they would address keeping siblings together and individual cases.

Instruction is proposed to be real-time synchronized instruction with half of the students in the classroom and half of the students remote. Each classroom will be equipped with a webcam where students at home can see and interact with their teacher as well as see anything shared on the Smartboard. Instruction hours are proposed from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

All teachers are expected to be in the classroom each day. The high school and middle school will have block periods on alternate days. The classes students have signed up for will remain the same including physical education [PE].

As per state guidelines, the locker rooms would not be used and students would not change for gym. Also, limited locker use in the hallways would require the district to reverse the ban of backpacks use, which was implemented a few years ago.

Instruction at Campbell Elementary School is proposed to have four days of instruction of English, language arts, math, science and social studies and one day of specials.

Instruction at Moss School would be similar to the spring. The plan includes a morning and afternoon kindergarten session.

Clubs would continue either remotely or in the new hybrid model. Caputo said they would address club by club. He said they are discussing moving chorus and band into a larger space like the auditorium or outside.

“Science says yelling, screaming and singing produces more droplets in the air … it’s definitely a concern,” he said, noting the Music Teacher’s Association has provided guidelines and the district will follow the aligned medical guidelines.

Health

School officials said their main concern is the health and well-being of all students, staff and their families.

“As educators we have degrees in education, not medicine and public health,” Caputo said.

For the hybrid in-person plan, all students and staff must wear face coverings. Policies are in place for temperature screenings, isolation and communication. Officials are discussing to add questionnaires into the policy. Employees in the district have been trained in contact tracing.

Caputo said the district has not received any guidance on what the metric is to close in-person learning if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19.

“There’s risk in everything we do having PE and sports normally,” he said. “There is great pressure to look at everything … it’s not like we have the NBA [National Basketball Association] bubble in Orlando, we don’t have a Metuchen bubble where we can keep everyone in.”

The NBA schedule is expected to resume on July 30 as the league resumes its 2019-20 season. The teams have been practicing inside what they have called the Orlando bubble.

For students and staff members who need masks or forget to bring a mask, Harvier said the district has 4,000 adult size face masks in stock and a couple hundred smaller sized masks. He said the district has ordered more smaller sized masks.

Herzog said in discussion with special education teachers some of the purchases made are for visor shields that completely covers one’s face, and masks with clear windows for speech therapists whose students need to see lips.

With the purchases of different face coverings, Herzog said there is an educational component, which they are working with over the extended school year classes this summer.

“We are helping parents work with their children to get them exposed and build tolerance to wearing a mask and interacting with people who have a mask on,” she said. “For students with sensory issues, we are working to find what will work for comfort levels as far as coverage.”

Included in the in-person school days will be mask breaks, Herzog said.

The district will have hand sanitizing stations in every classroom and the entrances of the bathrooms. Deep cleaning of facilities will occur after each school day.

School officials are also discussing different options for lunch whether for students to eat in their classroom or outfit outdoor areas for lunch similar to the current outdoor dining at restaurants. Lunch will be served more in a box type lunch with disposable trays and utensils, Porowski said.

Caputo said they would look into partnering with the community for COVID-19 testing opportunities. He said it would be similar to the district’s partnership with Rite Aid for flu shots.

With the district’s mental health initiative, two additional school psychologists will start this summer. Campbell Elementary, Edgar Middle and Metuchen High schools will have a school psychologist on call five days a week along with regular counseling staff. Herzog said there is a full-time clinical program manager at Campbell and Edgar and two full-time clinicians at Metuchen High School through Effective School Solutions.

Technology

Evans said all students in grades 5-12 have district-issued Chromebooks. In the spring, additional devices were distributed to families in need of more than one device and hotspots were provided for families without internet activity at home.

The district is moving towards a single platform where students have one username and password to connect to their online textbooks, programs, Google Classroom, Zoom and Class Dojo. Evans said the district wanted to make it as seamless as possible for students and staff.

What is next?

The next Metuchen Board of Education meeting is on July 21 through Zoom. Manley said officials are expected to address transportation and the contract with Dapper.

Caputo said officials are currently in discussions for how best to provide before and after care for students through Metuchen’s Before and After School Care (BASC) program and the Metuchen YMCA.

School officials said parents and guardians can continue to submit questions and suggestions. A frequently asked questions sheet for parents and guardians will soon be available.

Another webinar will be held between July 21 and the beginning of August as the proposed hybrid plan moves forward.

For more information, visit www.metuchenschools.org.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@newspapermediagroup.com.