Tabernacle BOE approves district’s 2020-’21 reopening plan

Health, quality of education are top concerns

Tabernacle Township School District Board of Education passed the restart and reopening plan proposed at its Aug. 7 virtual meeting.

Superintendent/Principal Shaun Banin and Assistant Principal Melissa Gallagher presented Tabernacle Township School District Restart & Recovery Plan to Reopen Schools. Banin first explained that every district in New Jersey must create plans to reopen per basic requirements outlined by the state’s Department of Education in The Road Back, a document comprising more than 100 pages.

“The state did issue The Road Back, which all districts within the state had to read and follow to open up,” he said, adding that the state’s guidelines called for each district to have plans accounting for “a large number” of topics.

Banin said the district sent “a number of surveys” so the district could follow state mandates while adapting them to Tabernacle schools’ specific needs. Key areas included in-person scheduling options, how many students will begin the 2020-’21 school year virtually and transportation requirements. 

Recognizing, however, that preferences and circumstances can change quickly with each new pandemic-related development, Banin emphasized that the district is flexible: A student enrolled in 100-percent virtual learning or the hybrid model of two days in school/three days virtual can opt to switch with relatively more freedom than other districts allow.  

“We’re trying not to lock parents into a long-term decision of choosing virtual schooling,” he said. “Some schools were looking to lock families in for a marking period, semester or a full year; our plan is if people do choose to begin the school year in a remote setting, it’ll only be for October.”

Banin said parent surveys’ feedback indicated the board should move ahead with a half-day in-person option. The alternating hybrid schedule would put two in-person groups — Gold Cohort and Blue Cohort — back in the classroom on a Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday rotation, respectively, with K-5 students and 6-8 students on staggered schedules. On their in-person instruction days, students will wear masks most of the time and will remain socially distanced.

He reminded the more than 100 people listening to the virtual meeting that a new school year does not negate the concerns that upended the last three months of the 2019-2020 academic year.

“We’re in a pandemic, we’re still experiencing it,” Banin said. “Last week, Burlington County was actually named one of the hotspots in the area.” 

He recognized that COVID-19 has been a catalyst for traumatic experiences in some, and said that the district reopening plan prioritizes not only the physical health concerns of a pandemic but also providing mental health support for “students, staff and family during this time.” A social and emotional learning initiative will be incorporated into the curriculum. 

Gallagher elaborated on the tenets of the hybrid educational model and how it aims to be adaptable to each pupil enrolled in it.

“It allows for personalization to meet each individual student’s needs,” she said. “We want to implement tools that are consistent across the board to help our parents, our students and our staff, and it allows for flexible scheduling, as well.”

For parents whose need for flexible scheduling extends to childcare, YMCA will have both before-school and after-school care available at Olson Middle School on students’ in-person instruction days. 

Gallagher also explained the parameters of remote learning days, for both the fully virtual and hybrid models. Live and individual lessons will be included, with teachers available for assistance throughout the day. 

The “flipped” classroom model will have students doing most of their lessons autonomously and then taking a deeper dive into the subject during class time. 

“It’s more individualized so the teacher can work one-on-one with the students,” Gallagher said. “It’s a more collaborative approach so we can really problem-solve together in the classroom.”

The full remote learning schedule will be available in the upcoming weeks. 

Banin said that he understood parents’ wariness of virtual education models after many reported an underwhelming experience during the spring’s sudden shift to all-remote learning. He highlighted numerous enhancements to both make remote learning more effective for the 2020-’21 school year, including professional development for teachers and videos offering technology support to parents, and resolve previous issues “that might have soured people on the idea of remote learning.”

“I’d like to remind people that wasn’t really remote learning to true fidelity,” he said. “We think of it teaching and learning in a crisis that just happened to be in an online setting.”

The district’s special-education program was also discussed, including how self-contained students will be in every day for full days and that the preschool schedule will remain in place. 

All students will be able to order lunches online. Those lunches will be delivered to classrooms, while remote students can retrieve theirs from Olson Middle School. 

In addition to strict social-distancing and mask-wearing measures, new health and safety precautions will be implemented for in-person instruction days. This includes: Parents will be expected to assess and assure their children’s health before they leave for school; screenings will be required before students are admitted into the building, hand-washing and sanitizing stations will be placed around the school; and there will be increased efforts taken in facility cleaning. Adjustments will be in accordance with updates from the state’s Department of Education. 

Field trips, assemblies and sports are cancelled indefinitely. Any extracurricular activities will be virtual.

After board members submitted their comments and the school community voiced its opinions and insights, Banin invited all parents and guardians to contact him directly with any additional questions and concerns. 

The board of education will hold its next regular meeting Aug. 17. 

The district’s homepage, tabschools.org, includes both the slideshow that accompanied the reopening plan presentation, as well as a link to the Tabernacle School’s 86-page restart and recovery plan.