HOWELL – Joseph Isola, the superintendent of schools in the Howell K-8 School District, said in an interview this week that the district’s buildings have remained safe for students and staff members during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We have had 14 cases of COVID-19 enter a school building. We have had a lot more people in our school community test positive, but that may have been a student who was receiving remote instruction or a staff member or a student who had been out of school for a while so when they turned positive they had already been quarantining.
“Actual positive cases to walk through the door is 14 and from that we have not seen a spread (and) we have not seen multiple cases happen from those cases,” Isola told the Tri-Town News.
“We believe schools are safe for kids … For families that have elected in-person instruction, to me that is the best instruction we can offer and our job is to educate people in a safe environment.
“The staff has been doing a phenomenal job, the community has been doing an equally great job in following the protocols; the community and the school district have worked closely together to allow us to be one of the school districts that remains open as of today (Dec. 4),” Isola said.
Howell’s schools closed in mid-March as the 2020 coronavirus pandemic took hold in New Jersey. The buildings never reopened during the 2019-20 school year. Students received remote instruction at home from March through June.
When the 2020-21 school year began in September, parents were given the following options:
• Fully remote instruction for their children that would not require their children to enter a school for in-person instruction;
• A combination of in-person instruction and remote instruction for their children. This option is referred to as the hybrid model.
Administrators said 70% of the district’s parents opted for the hybrid model and 30% of the district’s parents opted for fully remote instruction for their children.
For classes like music and physical education, the district has taken what it calls an asynchronous or semi-synchronous approach.
“The school day is an abbreviated day and core subjects are happening in person. Everything else is happening in a semi-synchronous environment, meaning some of it is happening live in Zoom meetings. So the kids leave (school) and when they get home they log in throughout the rest of the day and they have assignments posted for music, physical education and things like that,” Isola said.
“I have heard a strong voice from our community that would like us to continue in-person instruction for as long as possible,” the superintendent said. “I think the biggest question we have gotten so far is how do we keep this going?”
As far as students returning to a schedule of in-person instruction five days a week, Isola said administrators will continue to evaluate the situation. He said if the buildings are safe, children belong in school.
“Or at least they deserve the opportunity to attend school. That is why we are fighting hard in Howell to stay open,” the superintendent said.
He said administrators must employ contact tracing for someone who is symptomatic.
“If I come to school and get a headache or start coughing, I am now deemed symptomatic. I get quarantined, I get sent home and anyone I was in contact with also gets sent home” under current guidelines, Isola said.
“The challenge for school districts, not specifically for Howell yet, but the challenge due to the symptomatic contact tracing requirement, we are informing more individuals that they can’t come to school and work, and eventually that is going to catch up,” he said.
“The teachers come to school, they cover classes during the day. They have been a very important part of our work. Everyone is working and everyone is still on payroll,” Isola said.
As the district heads into winter break, students and staff are scheduled to return in January and Isola said, “I hope we are heading to class. There are (several) issues for me to consider. One is if we go to (the red level of the pandemic as defined by health officials), we will have to pivot to remote instruction,” Isola said.
Another issue would be a lack of staff in Howell’s schools if too many teachers are in quarantine because they are symptomatic or because they have been instructed to quarantine through contact tracing.
“Our staff has been great. Our teachers have been doing their jobs and they want to be with their kids, but if we quarantine too many of them we won’t have enough people” in the buildings, Isola said.
He said even if Howell’s staff members are willing to work in the schools, the district could have to switch to fully remote instruction if directed to do so by government officials.
“The third issue, which I don’t think we will see, is if we see spread through the school community … like an outbreak in a school. I don’t anticipate that being the case because I know how hard everyone is working to keep the environment safe, clean and healthy. I don’t think the third issue will be a factor, but the first two (issues) are somewhat out of our control.
“I have no problem (switching to fully remote instruction) is that if necessary. This is not about me, I do not win a prize if I keep the schools open. I just think it is best for kids for their social, emotional and academic needs. That is really important. Social, emotionally, and academic needs are best met in-person, in my opinion,” Isola said.