Board debates summer school issues while state guidelines lag

Lifting of COVID restrictions means sessions could begin June 12

Educators and school board members in Tabernacle are debating whether the district should allow for in-person summer school as pandemic restrictions are lifted in New Jersey.

Restrictions lifted by Gov. Phil Murphy since early May have allowed for a summer school  opening announced on June 12. But a lack of policy and guidance has left officials in Tabernacle wondering when and how to reopen.

The June 15 board of education meeting concluded with a debate among board members and educators on whether the extended school year program (ESY) should move to classroom instruction. Tabernacle’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team determines which students are eligible for ESY. One determining factor is student regression during the school year due to an education interruption.

Board member Brian Lepsis said the district should consider how to provide appropriate classroom instruction for students whose social and emotional learning were lost during the pandemic-related closure of schools.

“I get the fear and concerns, but there’s other compelling fears and concerns that our most vulnerable children are going to be on that much more of a COVID slide, that we’ll essentially have six months without a traditional school environment,” he said.

“That slide can be severe, and if there’s any way we can make accommodations to some of the students, I think it’s incumbent upon us to put the children first here.”

Face-to-face instruction has been the preferred method of teaching, board member Megan Jones said, but the limited amount of information available has her on the fence in regard to   when and how that instruction will return to the district.

Former Principal Sue Grosser informed the board that students who typically qualified for the summer school program in the past have been designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be among those at the most risk of severe complications from the coronavirus.

School Superintendent and Principal Shaun Banin said he has not received guidance from Murphy or other state agencies on how classroom instruction should take place.

“The one-to-one needs of our students in a small group setting is putting our kids and staff members in serious risk and jeopardy right now,” he noted. “When I read that information come up from special services, it’s very clear they think there’s not enough time to put things in place that’s going to cause undue harm to a student.

“Our number one job as a school district is to make sure we never put our students in harm’s way.”

Requirements for staff and students to wear Personal Protective Equipment and other safety guidelines for summer school have yet to be released by state officials. But Banin raised concerns about students who would require an additional teacher for in-class support and how social distancing can be maintained in such a setting.

A contentious debate continued between Lepsis and Grosser during the meeting before board member Dan Dilks asked Banin if parents could be surveyed about sending their kids to summer school.

The superintendent was hesitant on the idea, given that federal and state privacy laws prevent school districts from asking or requiring employees or students to disclose their health concerns. Such information is disclosed at the individual or guardian’s discretion.

Other board members also focused on the lack of guidance and conflicting information from the state that prevents the district from moving forward. Schools were directed by the state to follow camp guidelines for class instruction, but limitations on indoor gatherings, PPE availability and other preventative measures have complicated the issue.

Board member Col. Stephen Henske said there is not enough information available to hold ESY in person and the district could be at fault if something happens to students or staff, including COVID infection.

“To be educated about how we’re doing it is great, but there is going to be a time where we have to accept we don’t have information to make a decision, and we’ve got to wait,” Henske stated. “The best way to continue the program is to wait, and do it virtual.”

All other board members agreed on the need for more information and guidance from the state departments of health and education to move forward, but no action was taken.

The board will hold its next meeting July 20; the public can access the session by visiting TabSchools.org.