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Hopewell Valley Regional Schools will start academic year with in-person and remote options

When schools within the Hopewell Valley Regional School District (HVRSD) start the academic year on Sept. 9, they will be resuming in-person and remote learning.

HVRSD consists of six schools: Hopewell Valley Central High School, Timberlane Middle School, Bear Tavern Elementary School, Hopewell Elementary School, Stony Brook Elementary School and Toll Gate Grammar School.

The district has provided two options for families to choose between for the upcoming school year.

The first option will be in-person, through an A and B day schedule, which will only allow half the student populations in each of the six schools to come into the school on alternating schedules for only three days in the morning each week.

Remote learning with take place during the morning of the days not selected for students to receive in-person instruction. All the afternoon periods will continue to be remote each day of the week. Student schedules each week are based upon the first letter of their last name.

“If you have a child and your last name starts with Smith they will all go to school in-person on that same day. Now the difference between elementary and secondary student schedules will be on the secondary level,” Superintendent of Schools Thomas Smith said. “On the remote day for the secondary level, students will be streaming into class. Elementary school students will be doing work the teachers assigned while home for their remote learning days.”

The second option for parents and students continued with fully remote learning. Remote instruction would be Monday through Friday for both morning and afternoon periods.

“We have had an increase in requests of the fully remote option for learning. We are between 30-35% of more than 3,400 students requesting remote learning, which is upwards from the previous 29%,” Smith said.

The district has since worked on improvements to remote learning following the school year period from March through June. Those improvements include students adhering to a daily schedule, moving to a Zoom platform that will enable breakout sessions (students meeting in small groups), and the instruction itself from teachers.

“Teachers are much more comfortable going forward being in a remote or online environment. We will continue to do a lot of work with staff to make them feel more comfortable,” Smith said. “We definitely learned a lot and took a lot feedback from our parents from our remote learning survey and retooled it going forward. We were fortunate. Every student had a Chromebook and all staff members had laptops.”

Recently, a Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education special meeting took place on Aug. 21 for board members to decide whether to approve the district’s amended plan to delay the in-person return to school and continue the year fully remote for all students. The board defeated the motion in a close vote 5-4.

“I decided to vote against the revision to our previously approved hybrid plan plan for several reasons. First, our Return to School Committee had achieved the difficult task of assuring our schools could be reopened safely while gaining widespread support for the hybrid plan,” Board Vice President Adam Sawicki said. “Second, the weather conditions in September provide our best near-term opportunity for outdoor in-person instruction. Finally, local health conditions reported in mid-August that COVID-19 activity level reports are very favorable.”

Sawicki and board members William Herbert, Jessica Grillo, John Mason and Sarah Tracy voted against the delay.

“The biggest concern was that if we didn’t go back on Sept. 9, then we wouldn’t end up going back at all. Those that wanted to delay would find another reason why we should delay again or cancel in-person classes altogether,” Herbert said. “Now is the time to go back to school, when cases are low and we have a solid plan in place. We don’t know what the future will bring, and cases may spike in the winter; if that happens, we may have to make the decision to close schools again.”

Board President Deborah Linthorst, and board members Alyce Murray, Jenny Long and Debra O’Reilly voted in favor of delaying in-person instruction.

“I have publicly stated my confidence in the district’s reopening plan on numerous occasions, and will continue to do so. Having all staff and students begin the year with remote learning, if only briefly, would allow for staff to provide orientation sessions, to set class norms, and for staff and students to become acquainted, minus the anxiety associated with physically reentering schools,” Linthorst said. “This gradual approach would also give the district the ability to stagger the return of students and staff by level/school, providing opportunities to identify any scheduling or procedural issues and to implement any necessary course corrections.”

Smith brought the motion to delay in-person instruction before the board as surrounding school districts such as Lawrence Township public schools opted to begin the school year fully remote.

“That really caused people to start to think about whether this is something we should be investigating. Regardless, I think we have a strong plan, which we do, to reopen on Sept. 9,” he said. “I think with the governor’s relaxation of the mandate that everyone needed to be in-person, I think it behooved us to look and see if that was an option for us and our community.”

As the district administration and Board of Education developed plans for the upcoming school year, parents expressed some concerns with reopening.

“Lack of structure was the top concern for parents, the second was inconsistencies regarding where information was and we addressed this quite early,” Smith said. “For example, some teachers were taking attendance and some were not. The other big part was the expectations of students. There were times where students did not show up online or certainly did not know what they were doing.”

Smith added that district families, students and teachers need to acknowledge that potentially the district could be on a short- or long-term closure at some point during the fall.

“We have done everything in our power to create a safe environment for our students with screenings and temperature taking kiosks. Currently, we are in Phase 2 of our reopening,” he said.

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