Toms River switched to an all-virtual model three weeks ago, ahead of the curve of 241 other districts requesting remote plans. Of the 801 plans submitted, 545 are state approved and 221 are under review. But plans must be approved before school starts, and 92 all-remote plans haven’t been approved yet, including Toms River’s plan.
Administrators there say they need to go all virtual because going back to the building is impossible.
“We have approximately 1,200 teachers,” said Scott Campbell, president of the Toms River Education Association. “We have a lot of teachers that are medically compromised, or they care for somebody that’s medically compromised.”
Three hundred and thirty-three teachers and staff were granted hardship, meaning they won’t return to the building at all. Toms River is the sixth largest district in the state with 19 schools, 15,500 students and 2,700 full- and part-time staff. Those who can will teach from their classrooms.
Campbell says he is satisfied that this model is going to give students in Toms River the education they need.
“The goal is within a two-month period to have as many people back in the building, whether that be staff or students,” said Campbell.
“We were required to submit to the Department of Education a return back document,” said David Healy, superintendent of Toms River Regional School District. “Our tentative return date is Nov. 9.”
Healy says the hope of a vaccine and that cases continue to recede would make teachers feel safer about returning to the classroom.
In the meantime, the district is making sure its neediest students are in the building to receive special education services. And that the 30% of students who rely on free and reduced lunch can get it, either at school or delivered home. Toms River received $1.6 million in CARES Act funding, and it went to food, among other things.
“Purchasing platforms that will address many of our upper level classrooms or our courses, like chemistry and physics and biology with many of the labs, and doing labs virtually,” Healy said. “As we speak, we’re doubling our bandwidth capabilities so that we can support all the additional technology throughout the district.”
And they’re working with internet providers to give free or reduced access to families who can’t afford it. They’re using the state’s digital divide money to ensure that every student has a device.
Funding, they say, is critical since the district lost millions under the new school funding formula.
“This year, we’re currently losing more than $5 million, and that’s just going to keep going up over the next several years,” Campbell said.
This week, 240 support staff, including bus drivers, were riffed, meaning 60 days notice of termination, laid off and then rehired according to their seniority. Healy acknowledges these times are tough, but says don’t blame the teachers.
“They’ve devoted themselves tenfold in terms of what’s required on a typical work year,” he said.
It’ll be anything but a typical year.