The Toms River Regional school district approved a school reopening plan this week that provides for two days of in-person instruction in class and three virtual days of instruction each week, plus a slightly less stringent mask policy than first considered.
The Board of Education met Wednesday night to decide on a plan after several meetings earlier this summer and two rounds of surveys filled out by parents asking for their opinion on the best approach to reopening schools to in-person instruction since they were closed in March due to the coronavirus outbreak. While the plan was approved, it is still tentative, as state mandates could force changes before the school year begins in September. Indeed, New Jersey’s coronavirus case load and transmissivity rose just this week.
Students will be divided into two groups: “A” and “B,” depending on their last name. The “A” group will include students whose last names range from A to K and the “B” group will consist of those with last names from L to Z. The “A” group will attend school in person Monday and Wednesday while the “B” group will attend Tuesday and Thursday. Regardless of last names, all siblings will be able to attend school on the same day. Friday will be a virtual learning day for all students and provide an opportunity for the buildings to be deep-cleaned. On the days they are not physically in school, an online-based blended learning plan will be utilized by the district for all students. Parents can also choose to keep their students home every day to learn virtually, but must notify the district by Aug. 7 if they plan to do so.
School days will also be shorter than usual – four hours, the state minimum – so students will not have to congregate together during a lunch period. Students who receive free and reduced lunches will be able to take a “grab and go” lunch with them when they leave, said Assistant Superintendent James Ricotta.
“The minimum standards provided by the DOE has really guided our plans as we return this September,” Ricotta said, adding that physical space to social distance – the prime issue in state guidance – necessitates the shorter school week and school day.
Teachers and staff members will be required to wear face masks each day while in school, but students may remove their masks when in class and six-feet apart from one another. Initially, the district had proposed having students wear masks throughout the day, but encountered resistance from parents who said forcing children to wear masks in non-air conditioned classrooms would be unhealthy.
The return to school adds a new responsibility for parents, who will be asked to file a report on their child’s health each day on the parent portal website. Teachers will, likewise, be tasked with observing students for any signs or symptoms of illness. All of the data will be reviewed by the school nurse. At high schools, class changes will likely require masks and there may be “one-way” paths in hallways. In Physical Education classes, the state has mandated administrators plan socially distanced physical activities, though locker rooms will be off-limits.
Board member Ginny Rhine asked administrators what happens if student in a particular class tests positive for the virus.
“Are the other students quarantined, or not allowed to come in also?” she asked. “How does that work?”
Ricotta said students “may or may not be in quarantine depending on the symptoms and the exposure,” and each case will be evaluated by the Ocean County Health Department, which will follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Anna Polozzo, the school board president, confirmed that in light of signs that coronavirus cases could be ticking up again in New Jersey, the district is ready to return to an all-virtual learning program. Officials said, likewise, the district can pivot to a traditional in-person, five-day school week in conditions improve.
All of the details on the regional school district’s reopening plan can be found on the TR Safe Return page at the district’s website.