Freehold Township superintendent discusses plan to reopen schools in September

FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP – Administrators in the Freehold Township K-8 School District are planning to incorporate a hybrid program of in-person and remote (virtual) instruction for students when the 2020-21 school year begins in September.

New Jersey’s schools were ordered to close in mid-March by Gov. Phil Murphy at the start of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. For the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, students received a remote education at their homes.

Several weeks ago, Murphy directed school administrators to develop, in collaboration with community stakeholders, a plan to reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year in September in a manner that best fits a district’s local needs.

In a press release, the governor said, “This has been an unprecedented time for our students and educators, but we are pleased to announce we anticipate the return to our classrooms in some capacity this fall.

“The return to school will pose challenges, but we are confident New Jerseyโ€™s school districts can move forward in a way that best serves the needs of their district while also achieving a safe environment for students and staff,” Murphy said.

Guidance from the governor’s office describes the health and safety practices administrators should prioritize, including social distancing, the wearing of face masks, limiting capacity in classrooms and an increase in sanitation and disinfecting of surfaces.

In Freehold Township, the Board of Education held a special meeting on July 14 to share with residents the district’s plans for reopening schools.

Superintendent of Schools Neil Dickstein said administrators are planning to use a hybrid instruction model which will combine in-person and remote instruction. The school day will be four hours, with no lunch served and no in-person related arts. The remote instruction will also be four hours per day and related arts will be provided as part of the that instruction.

Dickstein said students will be clustered into two groups. One group will be in school on Monday, Tuesday and alternating Wednesdays, and the second group will be in school on Thursday, Friday and alternating Wednesdays.

“The conclusion we reached, in order to create an environment that balances the expectation for students to return to school with requirements for social distancing, is that the (hybrid instruction) schedule aligns best,” Dickstein said.

A 37-person committee worked on the reopening plans. Dickstein said the panel included community stakeholders, school board members, parents, teachers, teacher assistants, custodians, transportation staff and administrators.

The decision to incorporate a combination of in-person and remote instruction follows a district survey to which 1,981 parents responded.

When asked for a preference about school schedules and allowed to select more than one answer, 1,057 parents said they were in favor of students attending school on the same two days; 886 parents said they were in favor of students attending school on alternating days; 492 parents said they were in favor of students attending school on alternating weeks; and 164 parents said they are not planning to send their children back to school.

Dickstein reported that 60.7% of parents supported full school days with a lunch period; 32.4% of parents supported early dismissal days without a lunch period; and a small percentage of parents said they will not send their children to school.

The superintendent said the district’s reopening plan is required to follow the guidance in the New Jersey Department Education’s (DOE) “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education.” He said administrators reviewed resources from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In regard to lunch and related arts, Dickstein said the DOE is asking administrators to limit co-mingling between classes or other groups of students, and to minimize large group gatherings.

Dickstein said full-time remote instruction is not an option for an entire school district, according to the DOE’s guidance. He said only students who have a disability or serious underlying medical conditions would be exempt from in-person instruction.

“Unless a child meets the criteria, he or she must attend school in-person,” he said. “I am not supportive of that guidance and I have contacted our legislators and the DOE to ask for consideration in changing that.

“However, at this moment, that is the rule regarding remote instruction. That means if a child does not meet those criteria and a parent does not want to send the child back (to school), the child must be withdrawn from school and home-schooled,” he said.

If the proposed hybrid instruction model is approved and finalized, Dickstein said, siblings in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade will attend school on the same days. If special circumstances exist, such as an inflexible work schedule, parents may contact the school principal about their child’s group.

“We respectfully ask that those requests are reserved for those that are absolutely necessary and not simply based upon preference,” he said.

Looking ahead, Dickstein said two future phases of scheduling are being planned for Freehold Township.

In the second phase, administrators will seek to maintain the cohort model between the two groups of students; extend the school day at the elementary schools to be a full-day with lunch, recess and related arts; extend the school day at the middle schools to be a full-day with lunch, study and a regular schedule; and extend the school day in pre-kindergarten to be a full-day with lunch, nap time and related arts.

For the third phase, Dickstein said, administrators intend to end the cohort model and have all students attend school five days per week.

“I can’t give you timelines on those (phases) because those (timelines) have to be given to us through guidance from the governor and the DOE,” the superintendent said.

According to state regulations, administrators must be prepared to move back to full-time remote instruction at any time.

According to Dickstein, students will be explicitly taught expectations, such as wearing masks, social distancing, procedures for moving around the classroom and hallways, how to take breaks safely during the day, how to use classroom supplies, and hand washing/hand sanitizing.

Students will be expected to wear a mask outside of classrooms, while distancing themselves 6 feet apart from each other in classrooms.

A final proposal for a reopening plan is scheduled to come before the Board of Education on July 28 or Aug. 6.