August 26, 2020

Preparations for School Reopening Move Forward Amidst Uncertainties

By Donald Gilpin

Preparations for September and the first day of a new school year are never simple, but the global coronavirus pandemic has brought on what seems like an infinite array of complications and challenges, frustrations and fears, for school officials, teachers, staff, parents, and students.

At its meeting last week the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) announced a delay in its revised opening plan. Remote instruction will begin for all PPS students on September 14, but in-person learning, a phase-in hybrid program, is now postponed to October 12 for elementary schools and special education programs, and a week later, October 19, for middle and high school students.

PPS Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso, however, noted that two criteria must be fulfilled before in-person instruction can take place in the school buildings. For the first, there must be enough teachers on site to run programs in the classrooms and the schools. In preparations for the originally planned September 14 opening, about 100 staff members requested accommodations, Galasso reported, and there were not enough replacements available to staff the schools. For the second, Installation of new air filtration units in the school buildings must be complete, with the units functioning effectively.

In a telephone conversation Monday, Galasso expressed confidence that HVAC and other building modifications and personal protective equipment would be ready for the October 12 opening.  In addition to a survey of teachers, the administration is discussing plans with teachers individually.

“Over the next couple of weeks, the board will determine what replacements we need to get, what we need in order to be ready to staff our schools for the October 12 phase-in reopening,” Galasso said.  “They will review accommodations and criteria, then grant or not grant accommodations based on the criteria. We’ll have to see how this finally shakes out.”

Galasso acknowledged the dilemma facing many teachers and others in making the decision to come back into the schools, but he emphasized PPS’ extensive preparations. “So we’re hoping
people will feel more comfortable coming in, and we’re talking to the Princeton Health Department to make sure transmission rates haven’t increased,” he said.

He continued, “Let me say this about teachers. They truly want to do the right thing for kids. That’s why they got into the business. So everybody is a little nervous. Everybody has concerns — from parents with kids, to older adults who live with families, to multigenerational families. It’s a question of them feeling comfortable with what the district has done, and we’re going to do everything possible to make them feel comfortable. Then they have to make an individual decision.”

He added, “If they ask for an accommodation, it’s because they have a legitimate concern about themselves or someone in their family.”

PPS announced Monday that it has installed plexiglass dividers in schools, implemented enhanced cleaning protocols, and is preparing to distribute 6,000 N95 masks, 10,000 surgical masks, and face shields to staff members. There will be training on the most effective way to use masks and face shields, and the phase-in plan will stress physical distancing, mask-wearing, reduced class sizes, hand washing, and daily health screenings. 

In addition to the purchase of PPE, the district has initiated enhanced cleaning. “We met with the head custodians from each school, and they are aware of the new standards,” Galasso said. “We expect all surfaces, including desks, door handles, and bathrooms to be clean. These buildings need to be cleaner than they have ever been before so that our students and staff can return with confidence.”

In every school, common areas such as main offices and entrances have been outfitted with plexiglass dividers. Dividers have also been installed on tables in the Princeton High School cafeteria to make it easier for students to eat snacks while maintaining physical distancing. No lunches will be provided in the schools while the district is in hybrid mode. 

“The plexiglass dividers are an extra precaution,” Galasso said. “When we use them in conjunction with masks, hand washing, and physical distancing, they add an extra level of protection.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday that the State Department of Education had received 745 total plans for reopening from public, private, and religious schools, with 436 of the plans proposing a hybrid model of both in-person and remote learning and 180 schools applying to begin the school year with all-remote learning. 

Murphy emphasized that districts submitting plans for all-remote learning must cite specific health and safety reasons as well as a timeline to transition to in-person instruction.