Francesca Saabadra is one of many parents who’s happy her Lakewood school district is returning to full-time, in-person instruction this fall.
“What we’re looking like is a five day a week program, full day. We have a very unique population, the only urban population in Ocean County, 95% minority, with most families both parents needing to work, and not the traditional work where you get vacation days, sick days,” said Michael Inzelbuch, general counsel for the Lakewood Board of Education.
Lakewood’s public schools are 100% free and reduced lunch, another factor that contributed to the plan to reopen fully. But overcrowding is already a problem in the district, so spacing kids out isn’t an option in most cases. Instead, they’re relying on personal protective equipment and other forms of protection.
“The district actually purchased very soft cotton scarves that are pulled over the neck and then pulled up to the nose that is very comfortable on the students’ skin,” said Sara Garfunkel, Lakewood Public School District supervisor of curriculum and instruction.
“We have bought the poly, the glass, the dividers. We have that dividing each table,” said Inzelbuch. “Let’s say the younger kids learn at a table, so if there’s three kids at a table, there’ll be two pieces of plexiglass, see through, so they can still see each other, which is very valuable, but it will separate them. At the desk, in addition, they will be enclosed, three out of the four sides with plexiglass.”
They’ve also purchased kiosks that’ll scan each person’s temperature as they enter the building. And the nearly 41,000 students in the district, both public and non-public, who take a bus to school will have to pass a temperature check to get on. The district is also offering free testing every two weeks for teachers, staff, students and even parents.
But a big concern has been what happens if a teacher gets sick. Lakewood hired an outside firm that’s providing 49 full-time certified teachers.
“They’re going to help keep the distancing. Should a teacher get sick, we won’t have to wait a day or two to get a substitute. We’re trying to keep the process going,” said Inzelbuch.
So far, only about 20% of Lakewood families have opted to keep their kids home for remote learning. But for those that do, they’ve also hired a separate company to work with those students.
“They’re going to take our curriculum and they’re going to instruct 4.5 hours to 6 hours on a computer-based program so our staff can stick to teaching kids. There’s another expense, but our staff is needed to be in the buildings,” Inzelbuch said.
Buildings are already overfilled in some places, so they’re expanding by adding modular classrooms outside the middle school, for example, in addition to building a dome over a parking lot.
“So there’s more room for gym classes, for social breaks, if you will. We’ve got to get these kids educated,” Inzelbuch said.
He says they’re already successful running their summer education program, and that’s helping to inform what they need to do for the fall. The price tag for their investments will be run about $3 to 4 million, if not more. But it all could be for nothing if Gov. Phil Murphy pulls the plug on in-person education. And if that happens, Inzelbuch said it’s going to be gloom and kids are going to fail.