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Freehold Borough reverses course; will open with all-remote instruction

FREEHOLD – Administrators in the Freehold Borough K-8 School District have changed their initial plan and will instead implement fully remote instruction for students when school 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 education remotely at home.

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

Murphy later said an all-remote option had to be provided for parents who did not want to send their children into a school.

In mid-August, Murphy issued an executive order and said school districts would be permitted to use a fully remote instructional plan if administrators were unable to meet health and safety guidelines related to the reopening of school buildings.

On Aug. 17, Freehold Borough Board of Education members voted to amend the district’s reopening plan. The amendment changes the plan which was approved on Aug. 6 as a combination of in-person and remote learning (i.e., a hybrid plan).

When school begins in September, no students will attend school and all of the children will receive instruction remotely.

“Since late June, the district’s Restart Committee has been developing the 2020-21 re-entry plan consistent with the guidance then in force,” Superintendent of Schools Rocco Tomazic said. “With the issuance of the governor’s (most recent) executive order, the premise under which we were doing our planning changed.

“Freehold Borough now has to open 100% virtual for 2020-21 because we are unable to fully certify all of the health and safety requirements required of the district.

“The district will be ready to transition to our hybrid approach, which includes in-school learning, once five issues have been resolved or modifications to the requirements are made by the Department of Education (DOE) so they are no longer relevant,” the superintendent said.

One issue is the district’s HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system, which is required to have its filtration upgraded under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, according to district administrators.

However, the school district’s engineer has advised against installing the new CDC-required filters because the existing electrical and mechanical HVAC systems are not designed to handle the filters.

District administrators said they can work around the CDC guideline with portable HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters or back fitting UV (ultraviolet) systems, but time and money will be controlling factors in that decision.

The second issue is that Freehold Borough is unable to maintain the 6-foot social distance required in classrooms by the DOE. If social distancing cannot be maintained in classrooms, the DOE requires barriers to be installed between students.

According to district administrators, Freehold Borough would need about $160,000 to purchase the barriers.

Funding for the classroom barriers cannot be covered by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding, according to district administrators, because the money was spent on thermal imagers, stabilizing staff positions after the district’s state aid for 2020-21 was  cut by $1.4 million, and closing the digital divide with Chromebook laptop computers for first grade pupils and Apple iPad tablets for kindergarten and pre-kindergarten pupils.

A third issue is staffing, after staff members submitted 31 requests for accommodations or leave for factors such as child care, medical reasons or quarantine, according to district administrators.

District administrators said replacing those staff members will take time, increase expenses and degrade instruction.

Meals are another issue facing Freehold Borough. The original hybrid reopening plan used a shortened school day where lunch would not be served in school, but because of the number of students who are eligible for free or reduced price meals, Freehold Borough is required to offer meals provided by the Breakfast After the Bell program, according to district administrators.

District administrators said those meals cannot be eaten in a classroom because the required 6 feet of social distance cannot be maintained, and they said giving the students time to eat breakfast in the cafeteria and gymnasium would degrade the instructional day.

The final issue to be resolved is attestation, where administrators must provide evidence of adherence to all health and safety items.

According to district administrators, the DOE has requested attestation from Freehold Borough and administrators cannot attest that the computer and internet devices being offered for student use are actually in use.

District administrators said the board attorney advised Tomazic not to attest, but instead to provide written assurance to the interim Monmouth County executive superintendent that Freehold Borough will carry out the instructional plan to the best of its ability.

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