The Toms River Regional school district will, indeed, begin the 2020-21 school year with no in-person learning, following a marathon two days of endless meetings between administrators and, ultimately, the general public.
Thanks to new guidance issued by the state, combined with news that the local teachers’ union was not supporting a return to in-person classes, a routine school board committee meeting Wednesday night lasted until 1 a.m. before finally being adjourned until 6 p.m. Thursday night. The meeting picked up where it left off, and after about an hour of discussion, parents got to weigh in for the first time on the decision of Superintendent David Healy to move to an all-remote schedule when students return next month.
“I was pretty certain that it was inevitable, and it’s finally come to fruition,” Healy said of the decision. “You open virtually with the understanding that you transition into a hybrid and then into in-person instruction as things in the state evolve in health and safety, and adjustments are made.”
Healy will submit a form to the state indicating that the district cannot meet all of the health and safety requirements in a 104-page document published by the state Department of Education. That document was supplemented with an additional 19 pages of protocols and record-keeping requirements that was announced by the state in a press release Thursday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. One member of the public asked Healy what he would be writing on the form, but Healy said the form does not yet exist – the state will ultimately decide how a district either certifies they can handle the requirements for a return, or not.
Healy also said the district was under the threat of receiving a cease and desist letter from the Toms River Education Association, the local teachers’ union, if in-person classes commenced. That, he said, would place the district is a worse position, potentially having to abruptly switch from a hybrid system to an all-remote system at once, under the threat of litigation. At the same time, Healy said he understood the concerns of some staff members who preferred not to return to in-person teaching. On Wednesday night, officials said about 170 staff members had already informed the district they would not return to work in-person.
The move prompted many questions from parents on child care, however that decision is ultimately in the hands of parents, officials said.
“What kind of accommodations are going to provided for parents who are working?” asked parent Courtney Kuhl.
“We’re certainly aware of the hardships with childcare for parents who now have their children at home,” replied Healy. “We’re working with the YMCA and looking for ways we can facilitate something for parents who have those hardships. It will be a challenge, overall. The sooner we give this notification to parents, the sooner we can start planning.”
District official said they were ready to transition from a planned hybrid schedule in which students would physically attend school two days a week for four hours, to an all-remote program. The curriculum, they said, would be different than what was presented from March to the end of the 2019-20 school year, which was interrupted by the pandemic.
“We are not planning on the same type of crisis instruction we were giving in the spring,” said Board President Anna Polozzo.
The district has spent the summer obtaining software and digital curriculum programs to present classes in a better way, Healy said.
“Is there going to be a standard for teachers?” asked parent Tom Bielskie, who said that in the spring, classes would sometimes be interrupted with teachers’ dogs getting in the frame during class, or children completing work early in the day with no interaction with staff from then-on. “Is it going to be a more professional thing where they are actually presenting to the children?”
Healy said teachers will be presenting live, in-person classes, and some teachers who said they would remain home out of fear of catching the virus may end up working from their classrooms to present lessons remotely to students.
“In terms of standards, expect a professional standard,” Healy said. “It will be live, for the most part. We’re going to be following the regular school schedule and the expectation is that students will log on to their classes as they would if they were in school.”
Cara DiMeo, the district’s curriculum director, said staff spent the summer creating an entire remote program.
“The model we’re following right now is enhancing how we engage children in a remote environment,” she said.
Ultimately, Healy said, if there was any doubt as to beginning the school year with a remote schedule, the decision became even more clear with the latest round of health regulations issued Thursday. For a district like Toms River, with 18 schools, one case of Covid-19 could cause an entire school to have to switch to remote learning, while the other remained with a hybrid schedule. If a child who is infected has a sibling, the sibling’s school could also have to close. Between the regulations and the staffing issues, as well as the potential for an unwanted clash with the teachers’ union, officials said there was no choice but to begin the year remotely.
Healy will be required by the state to write an expected return date, however the school will be allowed to reopen, either in a hybrid setting or fully, any time beforehand.
Polozzo, the board president, said to expect the remote-only program to be as short as possible.
“We are hoping to get our children back to in-person instruction as soon as it is logistically feasible,” she said.