COURT HOUSE - The plans are out, and the first day of school, for most districts in the state, is only one month away. As Joseph Castellucci, superintendent, Lower Cape May Regional School District, stated, “The COVID-19 virus has dictated a new normal.” That new normal will make this a school year like no other.
Cape May County has 16 of the state’s 584 operating school districts. Specific reopening plans exist for districts that range from Middle Township’s over 2,600 student enrollment to those with less than 100 students, like Avalon, Stone Harbor, and West Cape May.
Districts may have multiple buildings covering the range of grades from pre-K to 12, or they may have one building for elementary students only. The districts may cover large areas, imposing complicated issues of transportation to and from school, or they may be located in a small community, with significantly simpler transportation issues.
Even as the reopening plans were being developed, the state was changing guidelines mandating an all-remote learning option for parents and moving to require masks for all students at all times.
School officials and advisory groups worked diligently to develop the plans, any one of which could be undermined by any even moderate outbreak of positive cases at a specific school.
What is Known?
There are common elements to each of the reopening plans, most driven by state mandates.
All the plans accommodate guidance on virus screening for students and staff. They plan for social distancing in classrooms and as students move about the facility. All plans establish sanitation routines and hygiene protocols.
Each district must accommodate the recent state mandate that students must wear face coverings at all times.
Plans call for staggering student use of common facilities, like cafeterias and restrooms. Staggered use also means frequent disinfecting processes on buses and in school common areas.
Transportation plans must be capacity-driven to allow for appropriate distancing on school buses.
The need for distancing in the schools has led many districts to move to a hybrid model, where cohorts of students will alternate using the school space for in-person instruction certain days while relying on remote-learning models on other days.
In Middle Township, students will be placed in two groups. Each group will spend two days participating in in-person instruction at school, with three days of virtual instruction. Similar hybrid models, balancing in-person and virtual instruction, are being implemented at most of the county’s districts.
Lower Cape May Regional School District will split students into four groups rather than two, meaning on any given day, only 25% of the students will be present in the schools for in-person instruction. The intent is the same, but the specific implementation is different.
What the hybrid models share is a continued reliance on the remote learning mechanisms that schools were suddenly forced into in March. For some schools, virtual learning was an integrated tool used before the pandemic. For others, it became a new reality when schools were forced to close in the spring. It now looks like something that will be part of the instruction model for the foreseeable future.
Each plan also must accommodate the option for parents to elect full remote learning for their children. Here, the state has created mandates that impose enormous burdens on school districts. State guidance (https://bit.ly/2YJ03Gf) states that for the full-time remote learning student, “the quality and scope of instruction” and “other educational services” must be the same as other students participating in district programs, which is admirable as a goal, but difficult to achieve as a reality.
Some of the county’s districts are small enough and have sufficient space to attempt a reopening that does not break the student body into cohorts.
Cape May’s plan calls for all students to attend together, with social distancing of desks in classrooms.
The reality for most county students will be limited in-person instruction and continued heavy reliance on remote learning.
For teachers and staff, the burden of maintaining all of the protocols while also delivering quality instruction makes life challenging at best. For a number of teachers and staff members, there is the added worry that a COVID-19 infection might have even more serious consequences for them than many young students.
One advantage, in Cape May County, is the fact that public health trends support the reopening of the schools. All health metrics indicate that the virus, which remains present in the county, is not spreading widely.
With most educators in agreement that the pedagogical, emotional, and social benefits of in-person instruction are of critical importance in child development, the schools have worked hard to put their detailed plans for the fall in place.
Yet, it is important to keep in mind that the most detailed and thoughtful of the plans are still vulnerable to positive COVID-19 tests that will require closing a classroom, quarantining designated groups of students and staff, or even ending a school’s in-person program.
Part of the state requirement is that districts be prepared to “pivot” to all remote instruction, if necessary.
Most districts have surveyed parents, held or scheduled public meetings on the reopenings, and detailed plans, which are available below. It is also important to keep in mind that the situation remains fluid. Change may be a big part of the “new normal” Castellucci spoke of.
View schools’ plans online:
* Avalon/Stone Harbor Schools: https://bit.ly/2DuiC9m
* Cape May City Elementary School District: https://bit.ly/33I4mV2
* Cape May County Special Services School District: https://bit.ly/2DDaeEp
* Cape May County Technical School District: https://bit.ly/2DNHCIf
* Dennis Township School District: https://bit.ly/33Jr4fn
* Lower Cape May Regional School District: https://bit.ly/2DDawet
* Lower Township Elementary School District: https://bit.ly/2XNDxed
* Middle Township School District: https://bit.ly/2XHVKda
* North Wildwood School District (Margaret Mace School): https://bit.ly/3ky57Ww
* Ocean City School District: https://bit.ly/3kuSzPU
* Upper Township School District: https://bit.ly/3gKJ9gV
* West Cape May School District: https://bit.ly/33Mi3m2
* Wildwood City School District: https://bit.ly/3kw269m
* Wildwood Crest School District (Crest Memorial School): https://bit.ly/33JShyt
* Woodbine School District: https://bit.ly/3ip47ST
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