South Brunswick prepares for beginning of 2021-22 school year

SOUTH BRUNSWICK – Superintendent of Schools Scott Feder repeatedly notes that the South Brunswick School District has learned to “pivot” and pivots well.

Much of the same is expected during the 2021-22 school year, which will begin on Sept. 9 in South Brunswick. Feder explained the reopening guidelines during a Board of Education meeting on Aug. 26.

“Things change often,” Feder said. “Our staff adjusts, they pivot, they balance it.”

Noting that what he said on Aug. 26 could change at any time based on guidelines from the government, Feder updated parents on how schools would operate this year as the coronavirus pandemic trudges on.

The Road Forward plan is based on guidance from Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders, mandates from the New Jersey Department of Education, and directives from the New Jersey Department of Health.

Feder said the plan is “practicable,” meaning based on feasibility: do this for as long as you can if this happens, so to speak. For example, stay 6 feet apart unless that inhibits in-person learning, he said.

Feder said the school district is required to allow in-person instruction only, to adhere to mask mandates and vaccination protocols for staff members, and to follow travel rules and quarantine rules as directed by the state government.

He said if a school district goes against an order and something happens, such as a person dies, then the district is at risk financially and through bad press.

“If that’s a mandate, we have to follow the mandate,” he said.

Per the governor, children and adults are required to be masked in school and on buses. The only exemption indoors would be if wearing a mask during a certain activity is dangerous, he said.

There will be mask breaks, Feder said. Outdoors, masks are optional.

“We are wearing masks, that’s the way it goes,” Feder said. “Indoors, masks, all the time, except when eating.”

Every student in the district is entitled to a free breakfast and a free lunch this school year.

Feder said administrators will “mitigate as much as we can mitigate,” such as having students walk into the cafeteria wearing a mask, and only removing it while actively eating.

“We cannot socially distance the students and they are going to be unmasked,” he said of the reality of the situation. “I am going to be upfront with this community; it’s not going to be a socially distanced lunch.”

He said lunch and recess at the elementary school level has been redesigned, and snack breaks will be allotted.

Feder cited the fact that adults get into heated debates over mask wearing, and said he understands this behavior could trickle down to children. He said the plan is to curb discussion of such a polarizing topic, and that it could possibly escalate to harassment/bullying depending on the situation.

In regard to vaccinations, the governor stated that as of Oct. 18, all school personnel, either employed directly by the district or contracted, must be fully vaccinated or be subject to weekly testing at the school district’s expense.

Feder said he did not know the number of staff members who have been vaccinated, but said he believes the number is high.

He said COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated staff members could cost upward of $250,000. He said that is an unfunded mandate from the government; the district was given funds last year for learning loss that will have to be diverted to testing.

He also said no COVID test is technically free; it is free for the employee, but not the employer. Since the school district is self-insured, it falls upon the district to pay any associated fees.

Students are not required to be vaccinated, but Feder said it is “encouraged” for individuals age 12 and older.

Teachers are not permitted to discuss vaccinations in the classroom, as “it is a personal conversation in families,” the superintendent said.

The quarantine rules are concerning, Feder said. A person who is sick with COVID must be out for a minimum of 10 days.

If a student is within 3 feet of another individual, and one individual is not masked, it is considered close contact, and the student will have to stay home for 14 days, whether or not he or she is vaccinated.

However, if an adult has been vaccinated, they do not have to remain out of school.

If two people are closer than 3 feet and both are fully masked, it is not considered close contact. So, even though exposed, a child would not be quarantined.

Feder said he is not sure how that is going to play out, since children will be at lunch unmasked sitting closer than 3 feet, and school buses cannot be socially distanced.

“It seems the rules were made mandating in-person (instruction), but they made the rules harder to manage with even more kids (in the buildings),” Feder said.

Currently, the Department of Health does not require quarantining after domestic travel.

For international travel, vaccinated people do not have to quarantine, but unvaccinated individuals should quarantine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises quarantine after leaving the area. However, there are no requirements at the present time.

For the latest information, Feder said administrators will post a link on the website for the most up-to-date requirements.

Overall, Feder advised that any student or adult who is exhibiting symptoms stay home.

In the event a child is out of school, there will be remote learning, meaning the student will have work sent home, but will not have access to active learning.

Virtual learning, which combined a live teacher in a classroom with students in class and at home, is not permitted, according to the Governor’s directives.

Visitors to the buildings will have to make an appointment in advance, wear a mask and do a temperature check/screening at the door.

However, there will not be screenings for students; parents are responsible for keeping any sick child at home.

Although the general rule is that 18 days out of school is considered chronic absenteeism, Feder said that does not apply to someone with COVID. Plus, he explained, if a child is quarantined at home, but still participating in schoolwork, they are not counted as absent.

Feder said hygiene is “the best weapon we can use,” so hand-washing, sanitizing of touchpoints and the use of ionic filters will continue.

Athletics will continue as usual, for now; clubs will be held after-school, in person; but field trips will be limited for the time being. Parent-teacher conferences are to be determined.

A parent asked how administrators plan to keep students safe, considering masks make intruders less identifiable in the event of school violence.

Feder said there are security guards stationed at the front entrance of each school, a safety compliance officer is a former police chief, and officers still conduct training drills.

Many parents inquired about homeschooling their children. Feder said a child who is taught at home is the sole responsibility of the parent(s) and not the school district.

Feder said if and when a child who is being homeschooled returns to the public school district, the child will be accepted within a day or two. He said homeschooling does not affect attendance, absence or in-person learning.

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@newspapermediagroup.com