August 19, 2020

In-Person Reopening at PPS May Be Delayed

By Donald Gilpin

In the sixth month of the coronavirus pandemic, with a number of schools and colleges delaying in-person reopening and just weeks to go before the Princeton Public Schools’ (PPS) originally scheduled reopening, the district is revising its plans for students’ return to the school buildings.

The PPS August 7 Restart and Reopening Plan, a hybrid model for a combination of in-person and remote learning, was designed as a flexible work in progress, “tempered by the recognition that uncertainties remain regarding the degree to which the district will be able to return students to brick-and-mortar education.”

The uncertainties — in the spread of the COVID-19 virus, in achieving standards of health and safety as directed by the New Jersey Department of Education and state and local health authorities, in staffing  sufficiency, and in parental concerns — seem to have multiplied, with prospects for a successful in-person or hybrid opening less clear than ever.

Deciding on a revised reopening plan was on the agenda for last night’s August 18 virtual Board of Education (BOE) meeting, taking place after press time.  Earlier in the day, PPS Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso said he would be presenting a “phase-up” plan to the BOE last night. “But there are two contingencies,” he added.

Those contingencies, which might necessitate postponement of any in-person learning until later in the school year, were staffing and the installation of ionization filtration systems in all of the HVAC units.

An increasing number of staff are seeking “approved accommodations,” opting for remote rather than in-person teaching in the fall, Galasso said. “It gets to the point where you can’t staff your schools for in-person learning.” As of yesterday afternoon, 90 staff members had requested accommodations.

Authorization to purchase 128 ionization units for the schools’ HVAC systems at a total cost of $98,456 was on the agenda at last night’s meeting. Galasso mentioned that the Board had been thoroughly supportive in meeting the schools’ requests as they prepared for reopening.

In the next few days, Galasso said, “We
have to determine whether we have enough faculty and staff to implement a phase-up plan. If we don’t, then I’m asking the Board to authorize me to go totally remote until October and notify the county superintendent and the state.”

Galasso’s phase-up reopening plan involves a “robust” remote learning program in place for all levels from the first day of school on September 14. Starting in person on September 14 would be Pre-K, kindergarten, first grade, and special education students. If that worked well, the rest of the elementary students, grades two to five, would begin in-person learning on October 5. And if that worked well, middle and high school students would begin in person on October 19, and the hybrid program would be fully operational.

Galasso emphasized that with a vibrant new learning management system, new devices for students, and extensive training for faculty, the remote learning plans had been significantly improved since last spring.

“The instruction and expectations for teachers, kids, and parents have been ramped up,” he said. “We heard the criticisms of what occurred last March.”  About 35-40 percent of parents, in a preliminary survey, have said they would opt for a remote learning program in September whether the schools open or not. The district will be conducting another parent survey in the coming weeks.

Galasso also planned to talk about fall sports at last night’s meeting. “We probably won’t have any contact until after September 14,” he said. “At that point we’ll make a determination about whether or not our fall season proceeds or whether we go to a local intramural program so we have some social-emotional kinds of contacts for our kids. But we are going to pay our coaches to maintain contact with all our student athletes.”

Galasso added that all clubs and activities that can operate in a remote fashion will be authorized, “because we want to make sure that the contact with kids is there.”

More and more New Jersey schools have announced plans to begin the year remotely following Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement last week that all-virtual learning would be acceptable if certain conditions are met. On August 16 Princeton Charter School decided to postpone plans for hybrid learning and will continue remote learning at least until November.  Princeton University, Rider, Rutgers, and many other colleges and universities throughout the country have recently backed off from plans to welcome students to campus in September.

PPS will hold a virtual meeting concerning reopening plans on Wednesday, August 19 at 6 p.m. for all parents, and additional meetings at 6 p.m. Thursday, August 20 in Spanish, and at 1 p.m. on Friday, August 21 for parents of special education students. See for further information.