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Metuchen superintendent, BOE president address concerns of proposed in-person back-to-school plan

METUCHEN – The proposed 50% alternate week “roomers and Zoomers” back-to-school in-person plan may not be perfect for everyone in the district.

Schools Superintendent Vincent Caputo and Board of Education (BOE) President Justin Manley know and acknowledge that. They reiterated it at a BOE meeting on July 21.

“There’s no good plan here,” Caputo said. “We’re trying to find the best for the situation.”

Manley said with state mandates to have an in-person element presented to the public by Aug. 3, they are “attempting to thread the needle” to address all concerns of students, parents, and teachers “between meeting the mandate, ensuring students continue to learn and advance, and making sure everyone is as safe as humanly possible.”

Caputo had 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.

The district is 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.

Instruction is proposed to be real-time synchronized instruction for grades one to 12 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.

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.

Jonathan Stevens, who represents 205 educators of the Metuchen Education Association (MEA) as president, relayed concerns after the online webinar to the Criterion Sentinel of the proposed webcam use, teachers with young school-aged children, and teachers with health conditions.

“The webcams may be legal, but many teachers think they should have been consulted and they have reservations about the webcams, which may create as many problems as they solve,” he said.

Stevens said expecting teachers to teach full time may pose a problem for teachers with young school-aged children, who won’t be in school full time. He added teachers with health conditions are beginning to send in requests to be allowed to teach remotely.

In response to Stevens, Caputo said he’s “not going to try to refute a particular teacher’s fear and concerns about returning.”

“They are real,” he said.

Caputo, who represents the interests of 2,300-plus students and their parents as well as nearly 300 staff of teachers and other employees, said the district has partnered with different stakeholders – like they always try to do – since Memorial Day to discuss the enormous task of reopening schools.

The district had to close schools in March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Sometimes a teacher or the teachers’ association may not love every outcome,” he said.

In June, a month prior to the state issuing its Return to the Classroom guidance, the Metuchen BOE issued its Collaborative Plan on Reopening Schools to parents, teachers and all interested parties.

“This is what we’ve called our ‘plan for a plan’ and shows everyone how we would go about making sure all voices were heard,” Manley said. “We have followed it at pace and are collaborating with teachers, parents, and students, not just teachers. There are many different parties involved some with competing interests.”

Caputo said since then he’s received great internal input from the 40 or so different meetings with stakeholders. Recent input include providing placemats for desks to making the eight days before Thanksgiving and Christmas all remote learning days in order for family visits and gatherings.

With Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement on July 20 allowing a choice for parents to have their children to continue learning remotely when the 2020-21 school year starts on Sept. 3, it adds another piece district officials will have to consider as they continue to put together their back-to-school plan.

Caputo said a parent can consider at anytime to pull their child out of in-person or bring their child back to school.

“Every child will have [an in-person] slot,” he said, regardless if the student is learning 100% remotely.

The students will be divided alphabetically for in-person instruction. Officials said they would address keeping siblings together and individual cases.

The default is to have all teachers in-person on a full-time basis unless directed otherwise by the state.

Caputo said the state’s roadback plan provides guidance to work with teachers, who have something that prevents them from working in-person. He said the district will run through accommodations needed for individual teachers.

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

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

For the hybrid in-person plan, all students and staff must wear face coverings. They are encouraging parents and guardians to practice face mask wearing with their children before the start of school. Policies are in place for temperature screenings, isolation and communication. Officials are discussing adding questionnaires into the policy. Employees in the district have been trained in contact families.

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

The district is expected to hold another online webinar on July 29, send its in-person back-to-school plan to the county superintendent on July 31 for review, and present the proposed plan to the community on Aug. 3. The BOE will discuss and vote to approve the plan at its next meeting on Aug. 11.

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