East Brunswick superintendent talks about schools reopening plan at governor’s daily briefing

EAST BRUNSWICK–Superintendent Victor Valeski spoke about the East Brunswick School District’s reopening plan during Gov. Phil Murphy’s daily coronavirus (COVID-19) briefing on Aug. 12.

Interim Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer said that Aug. 12’s executive order addresses two of the stakeholders’ most pressing needs.

“First, ensuring schools can resume in-person instruction while meeting health and safety standards and second, allowing the time that school communities need to plan for and implement those health and safety standards while continuing to provide instruction and other school services remotely,” Dehmer said.

Dehmer said educators and pediatric experts around the country agree on the importance of in-person instruction to a child’s educational and developmental growth, and everyone agrees that in-person instruction needs to be done as safe as possible.

This executive order, Dehmer said, reinforces that school districts must open to students for in-person instruction, where the school district meets the department’s health and safety standards for reopening, as set forth in ‘The Road Back.’

“However, we’re also sensitive to the concerns of those school leaders who say they need additional time to implement the health and safety precautions identified by the Department of Education and the Department of Health before they can return any portion of the student population to in-person instruction,” Dehmer said.

Dehmer said the flexibility the department announced on Aug. 12 provides school districts that time while ensuring that the entire state continues to progress towards safe in-person instruction.

“We felt strongly that it made sense to have a couple of superintendents with us [on Aug. 12] who are at the front lines of this, and who were facing different dimensions depending on the school district,” Murphy said. “As we’ve said many times, there are no two school districts alike, and we repeat that. It’s both a source of big challenge in terms of as it relates to policy and getting everything in line, but it is also a source overwhelmingly of the best public education system in the United States of America.”

Beginning in mid-March, Valeski said when the district shifted to distance learning, East Brunswick began a comprehensive investigation into how its recovery would look and how it could meet the needs of our unique constituency.

For the school district, Valeski said an essential part of that process was evaluating its daily activities and reevaluating every action and interaction around six distinct priorities.

First was an analysis of the spaces we utilize for teaching, learning, gathering and transporting students.

Second was the placement and organization of students and staff within those spaces.

Third was the integration of medical, social and emotional supports with academics.

Fourth was communication that is timely, accurate and consistent for families and township leaders.

Five was, of course, environmental safety.

Six was physical security.

“Our objective was to exceed the minimum requirements articulated in The Road Back guidance from the Department of Education. Our stakeholder groups represented the diversity of our schools and community,” Valeski said. “They all share the same desire to make our plan the absolute best it could be under the conditions and constraints we know now. Our plan had to be flexible and adaptable, as we know those constraints could change between now and our anticipated start of school.”

Above all, Valeski said safety must remain the district’s dominant decision factor. Based on the feedback from a survey it distributed to families, nearly 70% of the respondents desired some form of hybrid instructional model for their children, about 30% for the full virtual option.

“We are pleased to say that in East Brunswick, we will be able to meet the health and safety standards outlined in The Road Back and returned to our classrooms in the fall, all while keeping our students and staff safe,” Valeski said. “While a return to full-time, in-person instruction is not possible for East Brunswick Public Schools, we are confident that the hybrid plan we are offering our students will ensure that all students, regardless of where they’ll be during the school day, receive a high-quality education.”

Valeski said this plan will allow the district to provide safe transport for its students as well as follow social distancing protocols for its classrooms and in its hallways.

“Our classrooms will be set up to maintain physical separation between students and teachers,” Valeski said. “In our model, all students will participate in virtual learning to some extent, but our standard grading, assessment and attendance policies will be enforced. Our elementary schools model begins the school year with two cohorts, each designed to accommodate 50% of the school’s enrolled population.”

Also in the district’s elementary schools, Valeski said special area teachers will move to students rather than students moving to them, limiting student interaction outside their classroom bubbles.

“In a similar fashion, our secondary schools model has four cohorts, each representing 25% of each school’s enrolled population. Our cohorts of elementary and secondary students will follow our established arrival times whether they are face to face or virtually logged in,” Valeski said.

While the district will not be serving lunch in its cafeteria is because of social distancing limitations, Valeski said grab-and-go meals will be available under the same guidelines as regular lunch service and across the district after mid-day dismissal, allowing time for students who have attended school to be transported and have their lunch.

Valeski said virtual instruction and support will continue until the end of each school’s regularly scheduled day.

One of the features incorporated into the district’s model is sibling alignment, Valeski said so to the extent possible, children in the same family unit attend school on the same days.

“Additionally, to protect the health and safety of our staff, we have constructed enclosed security vestibules for our school security officers who manage entry into each of our school buildings,” Valeski said.

Valeski said plexiglass barriers are or will be installed at high volume secretary desks and where they cannot maintain adequate distancing between staff workstations.

“I also want to take this time to thank Murphy for the additional funding you have provided to close the digital divide,” Valeski said. “Those resources will accelerate our efforts to ensure each K-12 student will have current and reliable instructional technology for their individual use and can remain connected to teaching and learning while not physically in school.”

Valeski said he knows his peers in Middlesex County, as well as his peers throughout the state, along with their school boards and district leadership, and township leadership, are working hard to develop and implement plans that address their unique constituencies.

“Funding and human resources, as well as facility space and childcare, became limiting factors for many of the solutions that we all had considered. East Brunswick’s plan is just an example of a collaboration among many that attempts to meet the needs of many of the stakeholders in East Brunswick community.

“Along with the East Brunswick Education Association, the East Brunswick Principals and Supervisors Association, our Board of Education and parents, we will continue to refine our model as we develop solutions to unexpected challenges and look forward to our complete return to school. As I told our community, our plan is built with passion, but implemented with compassion,” he said.

For more information about the East Brunswick Public Schools District’s reopening plan, visit www.ebnet.org/Page/13244.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.