Toms River Regional (TRRS) Board of Education headquarters. (Photo: Daniel Nee)
Toms River Regional (TRRS) Board of Education headquarters. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Toms River Regional schools are still planning on using an “A-B” hybrid schedule, mixing in-person classes and remote learning, when students return in September. Some confusion over the issue arose after a local newspaper printed a headline suggesting the district would not offer any in-person classes.

Superintendent David Healy confirmed to Shorebeat that the district had not waivered from a plan adopted last week to reopen schools under hybrid system, in which students in group “A” would attend in-person classes on Mondays and Wednesdays while group “B” would attend on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The other three days (including Fridays for all students) would feature blended remote learning. The headline that caused the confusion was printed by the Asbury Park Press, whose reporter had interviewed Healy about additional regulations placed on in-school attendance by Gov. Phil Murphy and pressure mounting from the state’s largest teachers’ union to mandate coronavirus testing for students and staff. The Press has since changed the headline, but access to the article was limited to subscribers only, meaning many people were unable to read the full text of the story.

Despite the confusion, Healy said his comments to the newspaper about concerns over whether the district will be able to host in-person classes in September stand. He reiterated those concerns to a Shorebeat reporter on Wednesday.

“You’ve got a number of legislators introducing a bill that has legs that would delay the start of the school year,” Healy said, citing it as his top concern.

The bill, introduced by Assembly members Mila Jasey, Pamela Lampitt and Joann Downey, would require remote learning only until at least Oct. 31, and is gaining traction in the legislature as concerns about an uptick in coronavirus transmission, plus outbreaks in other states, become a larger concern. In Toms River, Healy said his personal prediction – despite the district continuing its A-B schedule approved by the Board of Education – is that schools will not open for in-person classes as intended.

“My prediction is that schools are not going to be able to open in September,” he said, pointing out that the state’s latest rules limit indoor gatherings to 25 people and would require all students to wear face masks throughout the school day. At previous meetings of the Board of Education, many parents said they were concerned with mask requirements given the fact that some school buildings are not air conditioned.

“There are now modifications to the checklist,” said Healy. “I don’t know how you’re going to run a school with a 25-person occupancy. We’re taking things day by day, and we have to stay tuned.”

There are also calls from the New Jersey Education Association, which represents teachers and other school staff members, for districts to provide coronavirus testing to students and employees. While some small districts have said they could accommodate the request, Toms River Regional estimates it would have to spend $900,000 each week tests were administered, an amount impossible under the district’s budget, which has already been approved for the 2020-21 school year. There are also signs from state education leaders that support for an all-remote program is picking up steam.

“Kean University, which is run by the former commissioner of education, announced that they would be going all virtual,” Healy said.

Assistant Superintendent James Ricotta has previously said the district’s plan for the 2020-21 school year has always been flexible, and would allow a transition to an all-remote or all-in-person school year depending on state policy and the overall status of the pandemic.

Healy said above all else, he is looking for guidance from the state on behalf of parents, who frequently hear varying rumors about whether their children will return to in-person classes in September.

“Anyone in a leadership position, including the governor, is in an unenviable position,” said Healy. “But there needs to be some level of consistency, because it’s really a disservice to New Jersey residents to drop a bomb on them.”

He added: “I don’t think that Oct. 31 date is unreasonable,” and said it is “logical” to believe the school year will not begin with in-person learning.

“As a courtesy to the entire state, if a decision is going to be made, it should be made no later than this week,” he said, but that does not change the district’s plans in the short term.

“Everything as we presented on [July 29], unless something changes, is still in effect.”