July 22, 2020

PPS Prepares Flexible Plan for Reopening

By Donald Gilpin

With September fast approaching, plans for reopening area schools continue to evolve.  The changing status of the COVID-19 pandemic;  increasingly outspoken concerns of parents, teachers, and staff; and guidelines from the governor and health departments influence the proposed reentry plans from day to day.

On June 26 New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced that schools will open in September. His 104-page “Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education” generated more questions than answers, as educators work on one or more of three models: fully-opened schools, remote-learning only schools, and a hybrid model that provides both in-person and remote schooling.  Each model includes a multitude of different options, and educators are anticipating the need for more flexibility than they have ever experienced before.

Princeton Public Schools (PPS) presented a proposed reentry plan last week and a revised proposed reentry plan on Monday, July 20, both following a hybrid model, keeping the safety of children, teachers, and staff in focus, along with excellence in education and all the logistics that go with it. Barry Galasso, PPS interim superintendent since July 1, has worked in public education for more than 50 years, but this is new territory for him.

“This will be the hardest thing most educators will ever do,” Galasso said in a phone conversation last Friday. “This is really hard. Normally when we deal with issues there are variables. But there are thousands of variables to deal with here, and it’s the unknown that makes it so difficult. School people are working hard to do everything the governor has asked. He’s going to have to provide direction to allow maximum flexibility.”

Murphy announced on July 20 that schools could allow all-remote learning.  A survey sent out to parents last month by the PPS indicated that 15 to 20 percent of parents would not send their children back to the school buildings in September.  In the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district, which has adopted a hybrid plan with primary focus on remote learning, 60 percent of elementary parents, 55 percent of middle school parents, and 50 percent of high school parents said they would not send their children into the schools in the fall. 

“We all want to do a good job, but we all have different facilities, different kids, different age groups of faculty and staff,” said Galasso. “In order for this to work the governor’s going to have to have confidence in the educational community and allow maximum flexibility so that we can provide youngsters with an education.”

He continued, “We want kids to be engaged in education. It’s a question of how to do that with kids’ safety and faculty and staff safety at the forefront.”

The district is required to submit its plan to the New Jersey Department of Education a month before opening. The proposed re-entry plan will be adjusted and refined over the next 10 days in light of ongoing discussion, a public Board of Education meeting online on July 28, and input from various stakeholders, before it is sent to the state for approval. 

The current plan calls for in-person schooling on a staggered schedule for most students from 8:30 to 1 p.m., with teachers providing online contact and instruction from 1 to 3 p.m. “This enables teachers to hold students accountable for their remote learning assignments from earlier in the day and to assess their progress,” the proposal states.

After-school activities, clubs, and events will not resume until January 2021. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (the governing body for New Jersey high school sports) has delayed definitive decisions on athletics until September 15.

The PPS is following recommendations from the Center for Disease Control, the New Jersey Department of Health, and municipal health officials. Each school has a pandemic-response team, consisting of staff members and parents, to review decisions, and the district’s proposal states that school buildings are being adapted to meet social-distancing requirements.

Still in progress among the needs  for a successful hybrid plan are the arrival of personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies, tents or other outside structures, and safe bus transportation protocols. The YMCA has offered to loan tents to the district and federal funding  may help to provide more.

Staffing is one of Galassi’s most pressing concerns.  “How many are going to be comfortable coming back?” he queried.  A survey is going out to faculty and staff to determine how many may be unable to return in person in September. “We’re going to have to determine whether or not we can properly staff our schools,” he said, noting that substitutes, in short supply last year, may not be able to fill the gaps.

In following school re-entry guidelines, students and staff members will be required to wear masks. Social distancing, shield wearing, plexiglass dividers, daily assessments of student and staff members’ health, hand-washing and/or sanitizing stations, and weekly deep-cleaning will be implemented. Visitors to the schools will be limited and allowed only if they follow the safety protocols.  There will be medical isolation areas in each school, and district nurses are being trained in contact tracing. 

Students participating in in-person learning will be divided into two cohorts, A and B. Pre-kindergarten students attend school five days a week. For grades K-5,  cohort A attends school in person Monday and Tuesday and learns remotely Wednesday through Friday. Cohort B learns remotely Monday through Wednesday and attends school in person Thursday and Friday. Special education pupils in self-contained classes attend school five days per week.   

For grades 6-12 during an A week cohort, A attends school Monday through Thursday, and cohort B learns remotely. During a B week, cohort B attends school Monday through Thursday, and cohort A learns remotely.

“Transportation needs necessitate a 1 p.m. dismissal, and no lunch will be served, which means minimal loss of instructional time as compared to a full day and eliminates challenges related to social distancing and mask-wearing during meals,” the plan states.

Outdoor spaces for classroom instruction, block schedules at John Witherspoon Middle School and Princeton High School, and staggered passing time to minimize the number of students in hallways during transitions will be used to help keep students socially distanced.  The PPS is working with the YMCA and other community organizations to provide options for child care during hybrid schooling.

Galasso emphasized the challenges of in-person learning. “If you can’t eat in a restaurant, can you really have thousands of kids and hundreds of staff keeping safe social distancing?” he asked. Adaptability will be crucial as the hybrid plan continues to evolve, and Galasso expressed concern at the possibility of an outbreak in one of the schools.  “All I need is one case and I will probably have to close down that school,” he said.

PPS has been ramping up its remote learning resources, with all teachers now using a new online learning management system. “Our remote learning is going to be significantly more robust than it was last spring,” Galasso said.  “It will be better and more comprehensive.”

The proposed plan promises “better hybrid learning and the opportunity to eliminate some of the problems that arose during the sudden switch last spring to remote learning.”

With staff starting the year on September 1 and most students now scheduled to begin on Monday, September 14, rather than the original September 9 start date, teachers will have additional time for professional development and preparation, and the schools’ technology department will be able to make sure that all devices are ready to go.

Galasso has received more than 100 emails from parents, students, staff, and community members regarding the reopening plan. The suggestions and comments have helped shape the plan and clarify what students, parents, and teachers are experiencing, according to a PPS statement. “This has been helpful in refining PPS’s reopening plan and making it better for all students, staff, and parents,” the statement notes. 

Further questions and feedback are welcome by emailing communications@princetonk12.org.