Lenape Regional’s district committees research and analyze reopening strategies

Plans are formulated for an expected Sept. 8 return to learning

Like many school systems, the Lenape Regional High School District is planning what fall will look like, but with the help of specialized committees.

Superintendent Carol Birnbohm explained during a virtual board of education meeting on July 15 that six committees have been started, with various district employees overseeing progress.

Committees include safety, physical/mental health (chaired by Chris Callinan and Amanda Cassel); curriculum and instruction (headed by Heather Xenakis and Shannon Bretz); personnel (chaired by Paige MacGregor and Ryann DiNatale); athletics and activities (chaired by Jeff Spector and PJ Mehigan); finance and operations (chaired by Connie Stewart and Matt Webb); and facilities, transportation and meals (chaired by Tony Voiro and Kara Huber).

No formal reopening plan was announced; Birnbohm instead noted the committee chairs’ rationale in strategies for the fall.

Gov. Phil Murphy and the state Department of Education last month released guidelines on reopening schools in the fall. But information in the state’s plan, called The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education, left many stakeholders in education confused, Birnbohm said.

Lack of a mandate on face coverings, for instance, is among challenges for the district.

“My point in telling you all of this is to not extend empathy for superintendents,” she explained. “Instead (it’s) really for the parents, students and staff who are confused by the contradictions by the information and may be scared.”

Committee chairs were required to create plans, bearing in mind the changing landscape of COVID-19. A highly sought hybrid model may be hampered by rising cases and hot spots in the   U.S., leaving committees with a virtual format.

Birnbohm shared results of spring and summer surveys that went to faculty, students and parents. In the spring survey, 3,543 parents and 1,377 students responded. The fall survey fielded 1,049 faculty responses and 5,080 parent responses.

A considerable amount of students (40 percent) felt virtual learning negatively affected their ability to learn; they cited lack of motivation, face-to-face interaction and use of multiple platforms as obstacles to success.

Five percent of parents and staff who responded to the fall reopening survey said they oppose a return to in-person schooling, due to health restrictions. An identical 74 percent of both groups said they are on board.

Xenakis and Bretz were challenged to devise schedules for both a 100-percent virtual and a hybrid school plan. The NJDOE allowed districts to decide on their own how to handle face coverings.

Other committees such as personnel and finance and operations explored accommodations for faculty and students who won’t be present in school buildings, as well as their supervision. Birnbohm wants to prioritize expenses for COVID-19 and revisit policies that address virus-related needs.

“(Spector and Mehigan) will make recommendations on equity and equal access, how programs meet the social and emotional needs of students, defining the role of advisors and coaches in a variety of environments and the programs incorporate incoming ninth graders new to our district,” she explained.

The two men have split activities and athletics into three subcategories: activities, athletics and performing arts. The chairs of subgroups have also redefined which programs are essential, modifiable or challenging to restart. Challenging programs were to be revisited to see if they can  safely be restarted.

Disinfecting buildings, busing and feeding schedules and locations are handled by the facilities, transportation and meals committee, with the understanding that the district’s four schools (Seneca, Cherokee, Lenape and Shawnee) and Sequoia Alternative Program each have different needs.

“As everyone knows, each school has things that are unique to those schools,” Birnbohm  noted. “The committees will be setting up guidelines, but not individual rules and mandates for each school. One committee may say we need a quarantine room, but they’re not going to dictate where that room is going to specifically be.”

Principals Matt Campbell (Shawnee), Donna Charlesworth (Cherokee), Tony Cattani (Lenape), Brad Bauer (Seneca) and Ben Lamberson (Sequoia) will relay directives to their building committee in August regarding implementation of recommendations from Operation Open LRHSD.

Parents, students and staff will be notified four weeks before the first day of school (Sept. 8) on what fall plans are. But Birnbohm shied away from calling any plan definite.

“The only constant in the pandemic is change,” she reiterated. “We know there will be things beyond our control that may delay our reopening. We will ensure our plans are able to smoothly transition us from hybrid to virtual back to hybrid and then one day, real school.”

The board of education will hold its next meeting on Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m. Details on the meeting’s format and timing can be found by visiting LRHSD.org.