Cranbury School District will wait to determine further implementation of in-person learning; parents frustrated with communication

ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF

Frustrations by the Cranbury School parents, focused in part on the future of in-person learning, were present when the Board of Education conducted its monthly meeting in February.

The potential future expansion of in-person learning, ongoing contract negotiations with teachers and communications between the school and parents took center stage during the public comment portions of the Feb. 24 meeting, which had reached 100 attendees.

“What are the criteria or what is the rubric for further reopening to allow all students to attend five mornings and to allow students to attend a full day? There appears to be no information regarding this rubric or criteria on either the school’s website or the Board of Education’s website,” Melissa Marschner said during public comment. “To my knowledge there has been no communication to parents or community members regarding the rubric.”

She added there had not been transparency and asked when parents could expect answers to the points she spotlighted.

In the last month the school district administration has been reviewing options for increased in-person learning time, according to a report by Cranbury School District Superintendent Susan Genco.

“As we finalize decisions, once we have properly vetted all of the information, it is very important that we make decisions and communicate out once and we communicate concise and accurate as to what we are going to do,” Genco said. “We will be addressing those and communicating them out.”

If the administration sees a path of steady progress continuing in the weeks ahead and the Middlesex County region moves into the moderate level in COVID-19 Activity Level Index (CALI), which currently has Middlesex County in the high level category, or sustained transmission/orange on the CDC COVID-19 data tracker, the district will move to strategically implement potential options for increased in-person learning time for all students in the fourth quarter of the school year, according to the district administration.

“I wanted to take this opportunity to recognize and acknowledge the significant feelings of loss and stress that all of us have experienced. The impact that hybrid and remote learning continues to have on students, staff and families mentally is not something we take lightly,” Genco said on Feb. 24. “I want our community to know that we hear you and that we share the same goals in resuming in-person instruction for students in a safe way.”

When it comes to future planning, the school district administration has stated that health and safety remains the first priority and decisions have been made in response to situations and conditions. Genco added that the district cannot and will not compare itself to other districts, because there are different situations and conditions in every community.

“In reviewing the recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated guidance for operational strategy and guidance for K-12 schools, there has been minimal change in that document, since the Road Back document released by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) in July of 2020,” she said.

In order to maintain the health and safety of all students and staff, the Cranbury School schedules had been designed around available staffing and space constraints to maximize in-person instruction for students.

“We have been working towards bringing students back in-person since we started. To that end we have taken action to incrementally increase student capacity, which has been communicated to those families impacted,” Genco said. “Priority was given to special education students, English language learners and at-risk students.”

While reviewing options for increased in-person learning time the school district administration has been taking into consideration the available space and capacity.

“These two things are our biggest challenge. We have used every inch of space to the fullest extent to ensure social distancing. And with each step we have taken to bring students back it results in a ripple effect within the existing facility footprint,” Genco said.

The district administration has reported that Cranbury has at least 65% of its students attending school in-person in the hybrid model.

“Given the high percentage of students attending school in-person many of our classroom spaces are at full capacity, when social distance guidelines are in place. This also limits our ability to bring back more students who are currently on remote learning,” Genco said. “For example, one of our primary school classes is currently at full capacity if one or more remote students choose to come back to school in that particular classroom, there is even more than one of those, we would need to move the entire class to a larger location.”

School spaces that can house larger class groups have been reassigned to meet social distancing needs. The district is considering other alternatives such as tents and outdoor spaces.

“Scheduling and staffing is another area of importance; the nature of middle school classes involves much greater movement of students than that of the elementary sections,” Genco added. “So based on the number of hybrid and remote students in the middle school, it is simply not feasible to combine the cohorts in the middle school and additionally as a K-8 school we implement an elementary school schedule and middle school schedule. These two schedules must be aligned as students share same spaces and special are teachers for instruction.”

In a parent letter on Feb. 25, Genco reiterated that in the coming weeks the district will continue to monitor that a path of steady progress continues with COVID-19 and determine whether to implement potential options for expanding in-person learning.