This is the first of a two-part series on local schools reopening.
COURT HOUSE - While the projected school day will be anything but normal this September because of COVID-19, parents attending meetings where school reopening plans were presented over the past several weeks were asking the usual questions about transportation, school supplies, and schedules.
What was different this year, however, were the parents asking how to explain COVID-19 precautions to their children, or what would happen should the school experience a virus outbreak.
Following the state Department of Education (NJDOE) and Department of Health (NJDOH) guidelines (https://bit.ly/32atEsE), students and faculty must wear face masks while in school. If they ride a bus, they will need to wear a face mask, and the windows will be open.
They may have assigned seats, or sit only one per row. For most students, their temperatures will be taken before they enter any building, where they will wash their hands often, sit 6 feet apart from each other, and do their classroom work. Others will be screened at home first, followed by screening in the classroom.
Lunch and breakfast will be eaten at their desks, where they will be allowed to talk with friends. If they are allowed outside, they will play games that keep them apart and safe.
If remote learning, hopefully, the internet and technology will work as it should. Students will follow a schedule of distance learning classes, do their work, and have little interaction with classmates. If they “act up” and present a disciplinary problem, parents may still get called. Attendance will be taken.
Middle Township School administrators stress their reopening plans are intended to balance the safety of students and staff, as well as the desire to return to school Sept. 8.
They acknowledge there will still be active COVID-19 cases when school reopens, with a vaccine not yet available.
They also realize there may be multiple waves of virus outbreaks, schools are operating with reduced state revenues while incurring increased costs to stop the virus’s spread, and there will be changing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and government officials.
Most Students Opt for Classroom Instruction
Approximately 12%, or 312, of Middle Township schools’ 2,600 students opted out of in-person instruction. As of Aug. 12, 13 teachers also opted out, presenting an “ongoing challenge to meet teacher vacancies throughout the year.”
Despite Gov. Phil Murphy Aug. 12 providing schools with the option to go to a full remote learning schedule if they meet certain conditions, Middle Township public schools will continue with their plan of implementing a hybrid schedule.
“Our plan balances the safety of our students and staff with the desire to return to school,” Salvo said.
Middle Township Schools Split Students into 2 Groups
At Middle Township schools, stakeholders made up of the board of education members, administrators, teachers, support staff, directors, and parents met regularly to develop the schools’ reopening plan, address specific school plans and coordinate all operations within DOE and CDC guidelines, according to Salvo.
At the Aug. 10 meeting for Middle Township schools, Salvo and his administrative staff presented a hybrid model for remote and in-person instruction, where students are broken into two groups, allowing for social distancing and smaller classes.
One group of students will be considered the “A Group” and attend in-person classes Mondays and Tuesdays; the “B Group” will attend Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesday is considered a remote day of learning for everyone. Remote learning also occurs when the groups are not in the classroom.
“There is no better way to engage students academically than in-person,” said Salvo. “A/B schedules prioritize small group instruction.”
The A/B schedule also helps with transportation concerns, according to Salvo, although parents are “encouraged” to drive children to school. “Buses are half full, so social distancing becomes more manageable. Students will have assigned seating and routes will remain the same each day, so the driver can become familiar with the student. Face coverings will be mandatory,” he said.
Because teachers have not seen their students in person since March, when schools closed, Salvo said they will be assessing students at the beginning of the year, and throughout the year, to determine if the students regressed or progressed with their learning.
High school athletics are still planned to start Oct. 1, Salvo said. Daily practice begins mid-September. There will be no middle school athletics for now. Non-athletic clubs will not be meeting in person; they will meet virtually.
“I am cautiously optimistic about fall sports,” he said.
If a person tests positive for COVID-19, they must report it to the school nurse who will follow DOH and CDC guidelines and follow-up with the county Health Department.
New NJDOE Rules on Positive Case Procedures
NJDOE issued new guidelines Aug. 17 on how schools should handle positive COVID-19 cases, when they should ask students in individual classrooms to quarantine, and when entire schools should close. The rules are general guidelines and districts can opt to develop more stringent rules.
The new guidelines include a prevalence tracking system for six state regions. Cape May County is grouped with Cumberland and Atlantic counties in the Southeast region. Each week, the NJDOH will provide information on COVID-19 transmission at the regional level, characterizing risk as low (green), moderate (yellow), high (orange), and very high (red).
This guidance uses a regional approach to determine risk within the broader school community and provides specific instructions regarding what to do if a student or staff member becomes ill with COVID-19, or shows symptoms.
Should the prevalence of COVID-19 become too high in a region, it could trigger a closing, and schools may be required to go to all remote learning. As of Aug. 20, the only report posted on the DOH website (https://bit.ly/38xsdHc) was dated Aug. 8 and showed the Southeast region was yellow.
Under the new guidelines, should only one positive COVID-19 case be detected in a school, then the school can remain open. Should anyone be in close contact with a positive case, they are required to be excluded from school for 14 days.
Should two people in the same classroom get sick, then the school can remain open; however, everyone in the cohort classroom could be asked to quarantine. If two or more people in different classrooms have confirmed COVID-19 cases within 14 days at the same school, then the entire school could be shut down.
Because reopening is dependent upon health data and experts in the health field, the NJDOE advises school districts that they must prepare to pivot to remote instruction at any time.
County COVID-19 Numbers Improving
As of Aug. 20, there were less than 100 active cases in the county, meaning individuals who haven’t cleared the 14-day quarantine, according to county officials.
“This includes cases from out-of-county residents,” explained Denis Brown, administrative aide to the county freeholders. “We have slightly less than 100 active cases in a county with a summer population estimated over 700,000 in a normal summer, so the rate of transmission, when thinking in that context, remains low.”
There was an average of just under 5.5 new cases of county residents from Aug. 13-20.
“This means the rate of transmission in the county remains very low,” said Brown. “The guidelines to reopen the schools are set by the state, and then it is up to each district to come up with a plan to implement. Each district seems to be handling it in their own way.”
In terms of availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), Brown said the face covering is a major component that the NJDOH wants to be sure is available.
“Parents are expected to provide them to their children, and it can be supplemented by the district in the event of financial hardship,” he said. “The Health Department has been involved in conversations with the districts and continues to monitor everything going on related to COVID-19.”
COVID-19 Precautions are Costly
Like other schools, the Middle Township School District has had additional costs for PPE, cleaning supplies, technology, staffing for summer school, and labor for remote feeding of students during the summer beyond the normal budget, according to Diane Fox, school business administrator.
“The CARES Act money will be used for these needs,” she added, referring to the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act signed in March. The district received $509,100 in funding, of which $11,000 went to their non-public school, Cape Christian Academy.
The district has been losing money in state aid since 2017-2018 for a combined loss of $1,709,294, Fox said.
“At this point, we are not anticipating any further loss for the current year, but the state budget has not been approved,” Fox said. “There will be further losses in the future budget years, which we will address at that point in time. If there is a shortfall, the district will take cost-reduction measures as necessary, as we do not have the option of raising taxes further since the budget is in place for the 2020-2021 school year.”
Funds from the CARES Act, Digital Divide Grant, and general operating budget were used to meet the technology needs of the district, according to Fox.
“The district has been working with a vendor since April to increase the broadband in all schools; however, the challenges of the pandemic have interfered with the process. We are hopeful to have this completed by September. We are also hopeful to have every student in grades three through eight supplied with a Chromebook to meet the technology needs, but due to the high demand for these products, they may not be available until sometime in September.
"We are exploring ways to provide internet service to those that need it, but during the shutdown, in the spring, that did not seem to be a huge problem.”
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