State offers guidance, instructs school districts to develop fall reopening plans

After months of waiting, parents and kids finally got the news they’ve been waiting for: guidelines for the return to school this fall.

New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said there’s no one-size-fits-all plan for the state’s 577 school districts. And while the guidelines follow CDC guidance, there’s lots of room for flexibility among districts.

“At a minimum, school districts must adopt a policy for screening students and employees for symptoms of COVID-19 and history of exposure, and must strive for social distancing in classrooms and on school buses. If schools are not able to maintain this physical distance, additional modifications should be in place, including physical barriers between desks and turning desks to face the same direction. Each school district must also adopt cleaning and disinfecting procedures,” Repollet said.

He added, “Each district will be expected to develop, in collaboration with community stakeholders, a plan to reopen that best fits the district’s local needs.”

Masks must be worn during the day by faculty, staff and visitors. Students age 3 and older are strongly encouraged to wear them, unless doing so would impact a student’s health as could be the case with special needs students or those with specific health concerns.

No schools should plan to operate at full capacity, but how and when they stagger schedules will be up to districts.

Mount Olive Superintendent Dr. Robert Zywicki outlined some of the district’s plans.

“The second option we determined is a physical return to school buildings with stringent social distancing. Risk mitigation measures include facial coverings, as well as the redesign of normal activities such as lunch, physical education and bus transportation. The third option is a hybrid schedule that could include split a.m. and p.m. sessions, or alternating days in which some students will be at school while some other students would attend virtually,” he said.

The district’s first option, a return to normal, is off the table. So is continuing an entirely virtual schedule, as the administration is requiring some return to the classroom.

As districts develop their own plans, they are looking for specific guidance from the state.

As West Windsor-Plainsboro School District Superintendent David Aderhold explains, he’s dealing with some parents who have to return to work, and some who simply don’t want their kids to go back.

“Approximately 51%, 52% of families K-12 as asking to stay home in a virtual model,” said Aderhold, who also serves as the president of the Garden State Coalition of Schools. “When we start thinking about our models, we’re going to need to think about who needs direct support on grounds, in-person instruction, as the highest priority. Clearly our special education population is going to be of highest consideration, but with that it also brings some challenges with respect to medical needs and high-risk needs students. Not every family is going to want to be on site due to medical fragility of students, so it’s really going to ultimately come down to family-based decisions and the flexibility that’s provided.”

But some educators are also hesitant to return to the classroom.

“By some estimates, up to 20% of teachers may not feel comfortable coming back. So there is the question of how you handle that in your own district’s staff,” said Garden State Coalition of Schools Executive Director Elizabeth Ginsburg.

Teachers that do return will come back to a classroom with many students who’ve experienced learning loss during the spring shutdown. So how and where will state testing standards play a role next year?

“We’ve asked for a waiver with the federal government in regard to testing. We’re now having discussion and conversation internally to ensure that, what does it look like, what does that testing requirement look like next year, so that’s all forthcoming,” Repollet said.

As they develop their plans, he said districts are required to form restart committees and pandemic response teams.

“These committees should include administrators, board members, local education association representatives, educators, parents and students. It also includes the creation of pandemic response teams in each school in the district. Both the restart committee and pandemic response teams should represent a diverse cross section of the school and community,” Repollet said.

Districts have to present their plans at least four weeks before the start of school so parents have time to plan accordingly.