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Matawan-Aberdeen schools move to fully remote instruction

The Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District has moved to fully remote instruction as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The fully remote instruction began on Nov. 30 and is scheduled to continue through Jan. 19.

Since September, some students had been participating in a hybrid educational plan that combined in-person instruction and remote instruction. Some students have been receiving fully remote instruction since the 2020-21 school year began. Parents had the option to select the hybrid option or the fully remote option for their children.

In a statement issued Nov. 24, Superintendent of Schools Joseph Majka said, “Over the last 12 weeks, we have seen statewide cases of COVID-19 rise from a few hundred per day to approximately 4,000 cases per day and growing.

“Throughout this time, the procedures and protocols we put in place have mitigated school-based spread. Unfortunately, the last two weeks have led to an exponential increase in positive cases, contact tracing, quarantining and isolations in our school community,”  he said.

Board of Education President Allison Friedman said that since Nov. 19, the district had recorded more than 30 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases, 19 of which were students and 11 of which were staff members. The confirmed cases led to more than 145 people being placed in quarantine through contact tracing.

Friedman said more substitute teachers were needed and she said children who were coming to school were sitting in a classroom essentially doing what they could have been doing at home.

“The rationale is ‘Is it worth the risk?’ for those extra couple of days of personal instruction. … It is not the intent of this district not to reopen our doors, but rather to take a pause,” Friedman said.

The suspension of in-person instruction for the remainder of December and into mid-January will cover the holiday season when family members may be getting together, she said.

“I recognize that no matter what I say … some (parents) will feel as though hitting the pause button for the holiday season is the wrong decision for (their) child or for the district at large,” Friedman said.

The board’s attorney, David Rubin, said district administrators will bear responsibility for their decisions.

Rubin said if administrators resume in-person learning, “we may have satisfied the community who wanted that answer, but it will not exonerate us from liability to someone who becomes ill because we brought back somebody sooner than state health officials said it was safe to do so.”

Board member Shari Whelan said that as a teacher and a parent, she believes children need to be in school. She said the effects of isolation are more detrimental to children than the risk of getting COVID-19.

“We have had so much success at the beginning and I commend our district for that, but at this time I do feel the district is failing our students and that they quit. I know that as a district we are capable of making this work somehow.

“… I was asked what should be done about the lack of staffing. To be honest, it’s not my job to figure it out. Can we work on some ideas? I hope we do soon because I definitely disagree with the schools being shut until Jan. 19 and who knows what’s going to happen after that,” Whelan said.

The board received a petition signed by more than 160 residents who asked administrators to consider keeping the schools open from Dec. 10 through Dec. 22, when the winter break will begin, according to Friedman.

The board members held a virtual meeting last week and listened to the concerns of parents.

Several parents said going fully remote until Jan. 19 is too long to keep their children out of school and said virtual learning has had a negative effect on their children.

Michelle Sassa said, “I am concerned for the well-being of our students on many levels, the first being their mental health, their motivation (and) there is a pervasive sense of apathy that has grown since the spring and it’s getting worse. You have healthy kids in bed all day, showing up for some of their classes or not showing up.

“Kids not even in the room, they are playing (video games) or they are making TikTok videos. Unless a parent is making sure their child’s camera is on and that they are sitting there engaged, there is no accountability.

“It should be up to the teachers to make sure the (children are) attending and doing what they are supposed to be doing because the (responsibility) is on the parents now that (school is) virtual,” Sassa said.

Dianna Pell said, “My fifth-grader spent today playing assigned computer games with no math or science instruction because Wednesdays are skills days. He told me he feels like he’s not learning anything. … Please reconsider this massive closure and get these kids back in the buildings as soon as possible.”

Megan Chamberlain said the switch to fully remote instruction “was not at the order of the state or the Monmouth County Department of Health, but at the discretion of the administration and the nine board members … You (administrators) were not ordered to close, you chose to close. You closed seven schools, so 3,700 students are now (in fully remote instruction) because 145 people are quarantined.

“As to liability … there is no way to prove where a person contacts COVID-19. The chance of a lawsuit due to COVID-19 coming to fruition is going to be nothing compared to the lawsuits you are opening yourselves up to by not providing an adequate education to students,” Chamberlain said.

Sheetal Weneke said the administration’s decision to switch to fully remote instruction through Jan. 19 was made at the local level and not by state or county officials.

“It was just done at their (Matawan-Aberdeen administrators’) sole discretion and they decided to do this and in doing so they failed the kids,” Weneke said.

Tiffany Stevenson said she supports the decision to switch to fully remote instruction. She said she has children who are receiving remote instruction and said their safety is more important.

“… Regardless of what decision you make, you can’t make everyone happy. Second, I am (letting) you know I am completely in favor of closing the schools until January. The matter of contact tracing has become your responsibility (and) with the amount of staff in quarantine … and the increase in cases in our state, that makes this a very wise decision,” Stevenson said.

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