East Windsor Regional School District students will be learning remotely for the first two months after they go back to school Sept. 9, based on the latest iteration of the school district’s re-opening plan.
The East Windsor Regional School District Board of Education approved the re-opening plan, which administrators hope will eventually bring students and teachers back together in the classroom, during its Aug. 24 meeting.
The plan approved by the school board now calls for bringing students back into the classroom Nov. 9. The district will use the hybrid model, which combines in-person learning and remote learning for students. Students will be divided into two groups that will take turns attending class in person and remotely at home on an alternating A Day/B Day schedule.
The school board had approved a re-opening plan at its Aug. 3 meeting that called for the hybrid plan, but it was scrapped in favor of beginning the school year with remote learning. This is the plan that was approved by the school board Aug. 24.
“As much as I felt good about the (Aug. 3) plan, there were some areas we were watching,” Superintendent of Schools Mark Daniels said.
Among those areas was staffing, he said. About 75 teachers have asked to teach from home, and not in a classroom. The district is reviewing the requests, which are being accompanied by physicians’ letters.
When the hybrid plan was announced earlier in the month, East Windsor Education Association President Ellen Ogintz said many teachers were wary of returning to the classroom – for medical reasons and for fear of contracting COVID-19.
There was also the issue of ensuring that the HVAC (heating ventilation and air conditioning) systems would have adequate filtration, Daniels said. The district engaged in an assessment of the HVAC system and the filters that would be needed. There is a six- to eight-week backlog for upgraded filters, plus the time that it would take to install them, he said.
Given the variables, it was decided to continue the remote learning model that was in effect in the spring, but with some changes learned from that experience, Daniels said. A full-day schedule is being planned, which will be more predictable for the students.
Also based on the district’s previous experience with remote learning, there will be an emphasis on synchronous – or live – teaching, Daniels said. Teachers will teach their lessons in real time to the students. Classrooms will be available to the teachers, so they may teach from their classroom.
Daniels said laptop computers will be provided to every student. The district will ensure that every family gets the needed devices over the next two to four weeks so the students will be able to learn remotely, he said.
The district also will make certain that there is a “how to” sheet that explains the educational platform that is being used, so the parents will understand it. Daniels said school district officials realize some parents may need some “hand holding” for the first month of school because of the learning curve associated with the technology.
School board members were supportive of Daniels’ recommendation to teach remotely.
“This is the right way to go. We will make it work as best we can,” school board member Robert Laverty said.
But when the meeting was opened for public comment, the reaction was mixed.
Paula Calia, who described herself as a “data person,” said it was not clear why there is a delay in implementing the hybrid learning model. She also questioned how teachers – many of whom have children of their own who will be learning from home – would be able to teach from home.
Calia also asked about the certainty of students and teachers being able to return to school Nov. 9, and whether there would be another emergency school board meeting about it. Based on school board members’ comments and questions, the decision has already been made and the school board meeting is a formality, she said.
Sonja Hubbs, who said she is an essential worker, asked about the potential for daycare for children. As an essential worker, she must go to work. She also asked about financial aid to families who need to pay for childcare.
Julie Cargille said the last-minute changes are difficult for families. She acknowledged that the changes are being driven by Gov. Phil Murphy, but she has two children – one in middle school and one in high school – who will be home alone.
She said she does not want her 12-year-old son to be home alone, trying to figure out the technology aspects. His experiences with remote learning in the spring did not go well, she said.
Laura Davidowitz, who works with special needs students in a neighboring school district, said remote learning does not work well for them. The special needs students need in-person teaching. She suggested looking to neighboring school districts to see how they handle it.
But East Windsor Education Association President Ellen Ogintz said the teachers “give you our word, we will do our best, which is the best,” as she thanked the school board for approving remote learning.
Responding to parents’ comments, Daniels said the district will explore childcare options and also offer a “parent academy” to help them with technology issues.
Daniels said the district recognizes the challenges presented by special education students, and pledged to “look for a creative way to do the best we can, virtually.”
“I recognize this is a difficult time. We will keep the lines of communication open,” Daniels said.