FRHSD changes course; will open with all-remote learning on Sept. 10

The Freehold Regional High School District will join the ranks of New Jersey school districts that will begin the 2020-21 academic year with an all-remote instructional plan. Students will not be in a school until at least Oct. 19, according to the district’s superintendent.

After the Board of Education had approved a plan that called for a combination of in-person learning at the district’s six high schools and remote learning at home, Superintendent of Schools Charles Sampson announced on Aug. 26 that students will instead begin the new school year on an all-remote instructional plan.

The FRHSD operates schools in Colts Neck, Freehold Borough, Freehold Township, Howell, Manalapan and Marlboro and enrolls just under 11,000 students from those six municipalities, plus Englishtown and Farmingdale.

New Jersey’s schools closed in mid-March at the onset of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and never reopened during the 2019-20 school year. Students received instruction remotely at home from March through June.

Sampson announced the change in plans in a letter to the community in which he said, “Over the past several months the FRHSD … created a comprehensive reopening plan that provides effective teaching and learning for all students.

“This plan prioritizes all aspects of health and safety and goes beyond minimum standards provided by state guidance … This work was completed to welcome students into our buildings in September following our hybrid schedule that provides for in-person learning.

“Unfortunately, a significant number of employee workplace accommodations and leave requests will not allow us to adequately staff our buildings in a manner that provides for effective teaching and learning to occur in our hybrid schedule. This means the district will begin our school year on Sept. 10 using the all-remote schedule,” Sampson said.

The superintendent went on to say that “the source of the issue lies with the haphazard approach to reopening schools from state officials. … This poorly developed plan has had the distinct impact of forcing many districts to adopt a remote option regardless of community sentiment. This approach has also pitted school districts and communities against one another.

“As you can imagine, as neighboring districts moved to a full remote schedule, the number of our employee requests under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) has increased exponentially. We now face a staffing challenge, making opening in the hybrid schedule impossible at this time. We expect staffing needs to be met for the transition to the hybrid schedule on Oct. 19.

“The majority of our parents wished for students to return to our buildings and we worked diligently to ensure they could in the safest way possible. Unfortunately, the statewide piecemeal approach for the reopening of schools has put many school districts in this situation,” Sampson said.

FRHSD spokeswoman Rebecca Policastro said when administrators initially surveyed parents, about 80% indicated they wanted some form of in-person learning for their children. When asked to make a final selection, about 75% of the parents opted for in-person learning.

In an interview, Sarah Cardillo Reichenbecher, the president of the Freehold Regional Education Association (FREA), which represents the district’s teachers, addressed several issues with the reopening plan.

Asked if the teachers who are unable to return to their classroom are concerned about their health in a school and/or if the decision not to return was based on other factors, Reichenbecher said, “There is a district committee in place comprised of administration, FREA leadership, parents, students and teachers.

“Additionally, the FREA put together a team of staff that was representative of school, staff position and specialty considerations (i.e., counselors and occupational therapists). We read, researched and surveyed our membership, and met via Zoom multiple times. Each conversation was intended to inform the district committee about how to safely reopen and meet the needs of our students in an unprecedented time.

“We submitted, received and revised hundreds of questions with the goal of creating a sense of security in the safety among all staff. While we had not received the final reports at the time of the decision to go remote, there was an understanding between the teams that both parties were working toward providing the best possible education for our students. We were holding one another accountable.

“I was clear with my members that they would be represented and they would not be asked to enter a building that was not safe according to state and federal mandates. The administration was well aware they were responsible for providing a healthy learning environment. By all measures, there is a positive labor relationship within our district and we were communicating effectively,” Reichenbecher said.

“… As our staff members met with their doctors, secured documentation and submitted their FFCRA leaves, the district was seeking substitutes and replacements as necessary. Shortly after Aug. 11, many districts submitted hybrid instructional plans and were then subsequently met with the option of all-remote instruction.

“This sudden switch caused a domino effect throughout the state. … As the last two weeks progressed, I watched the number of staff members who would need to put in for leave grow from five to 30 to 100. …

“It is very important to know we want to be teaching. This is not something any of us would have wished for and the staffing constraints were brought about by outside forces and decisions that were not within our ability to change.

“At the Aug. 24 board meeting, Dr. Sampson stated how unfortunate it is that we are being asked to choose between our students and our own children due to the chaotic and untimely mandates that have been made. This is not the fault of our members. Our job as a union was to ensure the health and safety of our workplace. We were working diligently toward a reopening,” Reichenbecher said.

Regarding the staffing issue, the FREA president was asked what is anticipated to change by Oct. 19 that will allow the FRHSD to begin in-person instruction.

“I’m not sure Oct. 19 does much besides buy us time to interview and hire. It will, unintentionally, provide us with additional time to outfit the buildings and prepare for a very difficult hybrid model.

“The world of education in New Jersey and beyond is utterly chaotic at this point. Teachers, as a rule, do not enjoy chaos. We are well prepared planners who often schedule our lessons to the minute so we can provide bell-to-bell instruction.

“… I know our teachers want to be with our kids. I hope that having additional time will allow us to make sense of the expectations so we can best support our communities,” Reichenbecher said.

As for teachers returning to the classroom, the FREA president said, “If the transmission numbers rise again, it will be difficult to expect a teacher with complicated medical issues to return if their doctor does not feel it is safe.

“Similarly, if an individual has a child with complex medical needs, they may choose to take unpaid leave to ensure they can provide for their child’s well-being. None of our members have ‘opted out.’ There are consequences for all decisions and every individual needs to do what is right for his or her family.

“Being a teacher is more than just a job. It’s a vocation that demands dedication and passion and love. We are all doing our best to make certain the time we spend with the students, whether in a fully remote capacity or in a future hybrid model, will provide meaningful instruction.

“I am heartbroken to see so many of the negative comments on social media insinuating that we are selfish or lazy, as nothing could be farther from the truth. In March, as we left our physical classrooms, I asked my members to give our students grace and to help them navigate a confusing and traumatic time. I wish our community would do the same for our educational professionals,” Reichenbecher said.

Policastro, the FRHSD spokeswoman, said that when staff members were surveyed earlier in the summer, “approximately 91% planned on returning to the buildings in September.

“After Gov. Murphy announced on Aug. 13 that schools could begin with all-remote instruction we saw a shift in that.

“As nearby school districts opted for all-remote instruction, our staff members who reside in those towns have faced an unexpected childcare issue and the number of accommodation and leave request increased,” she said.