Hillsborough Township Public Schools superintendent ready for hybrid plan to begin

STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF

All students in the Hillsborough Township Public Schools had the opportunity to return to their respective schools for in-person instruction on Tuesday.

The re-entry phase of the Restart and Recovery plan made by the Hillsborough Township Board of Education (HBOE) has been something that Superintendent of Schools Dr. Lisa Antunes has been looking forward since the school year began on Sept. 4.

The hybrid plan will allow students to attend school for in-person instruction two days a week and follow an early dismissal schedule.

Students will be split up based on their last names into two cohorts, red and gold. Family units with different last names will be in the same cohort.

The Red Cohort will attend school Mondays and Tuesdays, while students in the Gold Cohort will have in-person instruction on Thursdays and Fridays.

Wednesdays will be full remote learning days for students and faculty.

The school district has been able to bring back students with severe learning disabilities in low-incidence classes for in-person instruction over the past couple of weeks and that has gone really well in the eyes of Antunes.

“Things have been going quite smoothly,” Antunes said. “Our special education program director has done a great job running classes without an incident. We’re excited to have more students and teachers back in the schools.”

Hillsborough’s hybrid plan has been a subject of controversy the past few weeks with the Hillsborough Education Association (HEA) stating in a letter to the community on Sept. 11 that the school buildings in the district were in poor condition and not a safe working environment.

Photographic evidence of the HEA’s issues regarding mold, rainwater running down classroom walls, stained/moldy ceiling tiles, and continued heat, ventilation and air conditioning concerns was included in the letter.

The organization also voiced concerns in a press release sent out on Sept. 15 about the school district continuing phase one of its $35.4 million referendum project that is still going after beginning this summer.

The HEA also said the school board did not obtain the necessary permits to begin construction projects on the buildings and cut corners to do so.

Aiman Mahmoud, who is the school district’s business administrator and board secretary, said Hillsborough needed to move up more construction for the referendum to respond to COVID-19 issues.

Mahmoud said that all nine buildings in the school district meet the standard requirements of the Restart and Recovery plan and that the building crews have done a great job getting the schools ready for teachers and staff to come back into.

“The building crews have done a tremendous job helping our building meet the standards of the Road Back plan,” he said.

All schools are equipped with plexiglass barriers, face shields, gowns, hand sanitizer and other personal protective equipment, Mahmoud said.

The school district also was one of the first in the state to purchase electronic static sprayers to disinfect all the equipment and areas in each school building, something Mahmoud said the district is extremely proud of.

Mahmoud also said the school district would hold a safety meeting for all teachers back on Sept. 25 to go over all the guidelines before the hybrid plan began.

At the Board of Education meeting on Sept. 14, Antunes praised her entire staff and faculty for their hard work to keep “the learning alive throughout careful planning and development of instruction.”

She added that she was confident both sides would be able to work together all the challenges this school year.

Another recent issue the school district has had to investigate was the report by Hillsborough Township Mayor Doug Tomson early in September that there was a COVID-19 outbreak in the town.

The source of the outbreak was traced back to positive cases found in the DC Gymnastics School.

Contact tracing performed by the school district found other students in the district that were, or possibly, connected to the DC Gymnastics School outbreak. This prompted Antunes to put a handful of sports on hold for two weeks.

The Hillsborough High School boys soccer team and the boys and girls cross country programs all suspended activities for the time being. The Hillsborough Middle School field hockey season was also put on hold.

The recent events did not push back the school district from beginning its hybrid plan as Antunes stated at the board meeting on Sept. 21.

Antunes made it a point to stress the importance of those needing to quarantine to do so and not put others at risk. She said any students that may be asymptomatic or need to be in quarantine still are advised to stay home for the time being.

“Not only is the season in terms of athletics in jeopardy, but our entire educational plan is in jeopardy because our community is having difficulty acting in the best interest of each other,” Antunes said at the meeting.

The superintendent states it is a 50-50 split on students doing the hybrid plan or electing to do all virtual learning for the first marking period.

Antunes understands that she can’t make everyone happy with any decision she makes and that the school district is doing the best it can to accommodate the needs of students and staff in each environment.

Live synchronous instruction has been the biggest area of focus the school district has been working on with the teachers, Antunes said.

Beginning the hybrid model is the first step forward that Antunes hopes leads to the school achieving its ultimate goal down the road of bringing all students back to school safely.

“I’m looking forward to seeing teachers and students engage with each other,” Antunes said. “We want to make them feel safe and happy to be back in school.”