By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank school officials have begun nailing down a COVID-19-era reopening plan while “standing on shifting ground,” in the words of a board of education member.
On Wednesday, the district unveiled “the most likely scenario for September” in the form of a plan that calls for a mix of classroom and at-home learning.
Under the plan, the district’s 1,400 students will be assigned to eight-child cohorts to “minimize crossover among children and adults.”
Children will attend school on either Monday and Tuesdays or Thursdays and Fridays, depending on their cohort schedules. Siblings will be assigned to cohorts on the same schedules, officials said.
Instruction will be virtual for all students on Wednesdays, when school facilities will be fully staffed but student-free “for a more intense cleaning” that includes the use of electrostatic disinfection techniques, said Business Administrator Eileen Gorga.
Those were just some of a long list of details contained in presentations at Tuesday’s board of ed meeting and a reopening update posted on the district website Wednesday.
Many of the details are subject to change, said board President Fred Stone.
“We’re standing on shifting ground, both by virtue of the behavior of the virus” and the New Jersey Department of Education’s recommendations on how to address it, said Stone.
“We have to know that this is going to change,” he said. “And once we open up, we’ll discover there are things we need to tweak.”
The plan is based on New Jersey being at “stage 3” as defined by Governor Phil Murphy’s restart and recovery approach.
Among other elements, Red Bank’s plan calls for:
• Aides on buses to take attendance prior to students’ arrival at school; multiple entries to school buildings; daily temperature checks of everyone entering facilities, and temporary isolation of those showing possible signs of fever.
• Students assigned to cohorts to “minimize crossover among children and adults.” Cohorts will remain together in order to streamline contact tracing response times in cases of close contacts with an infected person.
• In-person learning will be on a minimum school day schedule, with grades 4 through 8 dismissed at 1 p.m. and all lower grades at 1:25 p.m.
Afterward, teachers will have another 45 to 60 minutes of virtual contact with students.
“Every day that students are home, they will have interaction with their teacher,” Superintendent Jared Rumage said at the board meeting, held online.
• No breakfast or lunch will be offered in school because of social distancing guidelines. Instead, students will be provided with a snack in addition to the current grab-and-go lunches.
• Chromebooks will be issued in late August or early September to all students in Grades K-8. The customary school year packet pickup has been postponed.
• Cloth face coverings will be required for all students and staff, with some exceptions for medical reasons. Hand sanitizer usage will be emphasized.
• All extracurricular activities, before- and after-school programming and athletics are on hold at least through September. “Once we can ensure a safe return at Stage 3, we will revisit these areas and proceed,” the district posting said.
• Curriculum changes and schedules are also expected, assistant superintendent of Luigi Laugelli said at Tuesday night’s board meeting.
“We learned a tremendous amount” from March through June, when the district, like all others in New Jersey, was forced to transition to virtual instruction, Laugelli said. “And we know we can definitely do better. So we are working on creating standards and protocols for what virtual learning should look like.”
Teaching staff will receive six days of training on virtual learning, security and curriculum changes, he said.
The plan also includes a focus on the “social emotional learning” of students, families and staff members, Laugelli said.
But Rumage said the district still needs to determine which and how many staff members are “unable or unwilling” to return to the school buildings, and if any need special medical accommodations.
Rumage could not be reached for clarification Wednesday.
The plan emerged as Murphy’s administration reported nearly 2,500 newly confirmed COVID-19 infections over the past six days.
It also came as three New Jersey legislators, including one representing a district that includes Red Bank, introduced a bill to require that all instruction at the beginning of the school year be virtual.
“No one can deny the benefits of in-person instruction, especially for our younger students,” 11th-district Democrat Joann Downey (D-Monmouth), chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee, said in a press release Wednesday. “However, the safety of our children must always come first. We also must keep in mind our valued teachers, many of whom have health concerns or fear bringing the virus home to their families.”
Rumage said the plan will continue to undergo revisions, with a presentation to an internal restart committee August 10, followed by a public presentation the following the night at the next board meeting for possible adoption.