The Hopewell Valley Regional School District (HVRSD) continues to adapt to the impacts of COVID-19, as Superintendent Thomas Smith laid out the challenges faced and efforts made on how the district has been handling the current pandemic.
A discussion was held by the Pennington Presbyterian Church for its Brown Bag Lunch program series that took place on Feb. 19, designed to give insight to those who may not have a personal connection to the school district.
Smith said he would like to see more discussions take place throughout Hopewell Valley about what the district is doing and how they are doing it, with either himself, school principals and administrators.
“I think we are doing a pretty good job with communicating to our parents, but I think the general community is really interested in what is happening in our schools,” Smith said. “We were one of the first districts in the area who brought in-person students back and we have been asked to share our schedules and planning with representatives from the New Jersey Department of Education as well as with other districts.”
Without much notice in a meeting with county health officials on Jan. 31, 2020, Smith was informed that the schools would be touched by COVID-19 at some point, but did not know at that time to what extent.
The school district proceeded to remote instruction on March 13 that was part of a short-term districtwide closure of schools for 14 days. The switch to remote instruction was followed by Gov. Phil Murphy’s issued executive orders mandating schools remain closed for the remainder of the school year.
“Our remote learning was not something new to us. We had been using it for several years for our first two snow days since 2017. Students would come online and do work for their first two snow days each year,” Smith said. “Every student from sixth through 12th grade had a Chromebook already that they were taking home and students in Kindergarten through fifth grade had Chromebooks in their classrooms.”
When the switch to remote learning occurred they hand delivered about 250 additional Chromebooks to individuals who had not come to school. The school district experienced only 20 families who were without internet.
“We bought these hotspots (20) to go to the families of the students,” Smith said.
For the current 2020-21 school year and a return to in-person instruction that occurred in September, the district established six committees (facilities, curriculum, health & wellness, operations, governance and technology) with more than 100 individuals involved in the planning.
The school district provided both remote and in-person instruction. According to Smith’s presentation on the updated numbers in January, out of 3,416 students in the district, 1,201 students are part of the remote option for instruction.
“We are between Phase 2 and Phase 3 of our reopening plan. We are slowly moving towards 75% capacity with a goal moving towards in-person, full-day, full-time by the end of the school year,” Smith said.
The school district implemented a screening process in the morning for those attending in-person instruction and for sports and after school activities. Students part of the screening in the morning would have to re-screen again to participate in the sports or after school activities.
“We have temperature-taking kiosks where you show your face and it automatically takes your temperature and then you have to fill out a form that you have not been exposed to anybody,” Smith said.
Students are required to wear masks. They are provided one cloth mask and provided masks breaks during the day.
Restrooms are also cleaned regularly and monitored, along with hand sanitizer, gloves and disinfectant wipes being readily available.
Additionally, Plexiglas panels on teachers’ desks have also been implemented.
The district adapting to the pandemic was not without its challenges, Smith said. Some of those challenges included some remote students not showing up to class on time, some students attending class from restaurants and moving cars, and some students doing other things not class related on separate screens.
“We had to really level set the expectations for them and say if the class starts at 8:25 a.m. you need to be online and we need to see your face online. Because what was happening is that you would have kids not show their faces and turn their screens off,” Smith said. “The other problem was that some students were doing other things in addition to participating in the class. They were maybe watching a Netflix show on another screen that we could not see and things like that.”
To combat the issue of separate screens the district implemented a tool for teachers to use called GoGuardian.
“So now the teachers can also see what is on their screen, so again that is a new challenge we are faced with,” he said.
Currently, district schools do have enough space and teachers for in-person instruction.
“Unless the social distancing requirements change, we won’t have enough room to bring more kids back in the classrooms. What we did was is move a lot of the furniture out of the classes and set up desks that were six feet apart and they are doing OK,” he said. “What we are anticipating is that we will have another round of students that we are going to ask them to come back and we are going to have to relocate our classrooms to larger areas. So that is what we did particularly on the elementary level.”
Smith added that they have some classes taking place in the cafeteria and the art room or some of the schools’ larger spaces.
“Toll Gate Grammar School, for example, is older and the classrooms are physically smaller, so even if we take out a lot of the furniture it is still a challenge to get all of the students in there that you would want,” he said.
The district has hired more teachers for the spring semester so they could keep the class numbers down. The classes are called pods and are in groups of 10 or 12.
As the school district moves forward in the current school year, some of the next steps for the district include collapsing the split A/B cohorts of Hopewell Valley Central High School (HVCHS) in March and around spring break moving to full-day in-person instruction for students with special needs.
Timberlane Middle School (TMS) has been having a rolling return to bring back students incrementally in person.
There is goal and expectation that by the end of the school year students will be full-day, in-person for any students who want to be there from Kindergarten through 12th grade.
“I recognize that there will be some folks who do not feel comfortable coming back and we have accommodations for them,” Smith said.