School districts in the state were originally advised to be prepared for some form of in-person instruction in September, but changes made by Gov. Phil Murphy and the state Department of Education allowed districts not prepared to safely return in person to have a full-remote option, as long as they inform the state when they are able to welcome students back in person.
Eastern Regional High School recently decided to delay its in-person opening until at least Oct. 5 and opt for fully remote learning for nearly the first month of school. Schools will reopen Tuesday, Sept. 8.
At the K-8 district’s virtual meeting last week, teachers, parents and community members voiced their opinions for and against the current reopening plan, whose hybrid model would split students into two groups. Half would attend school in person on Monday and Tuesday, while the other group would be in person Thursday and Friday. Wednesday would be a remote-only learning day for all students.
During the board session’s public comment, the vast majority of speakers urged members to vote against the district’s reopening plan for the 2020-2021 school year. As of deadline, the district could not be reached for comment regarding action by the board or questions raised during public comment.
“As for this coming September, I think Voorhees should be fully remote,” said Dana Carson. “We all want things to go back to normal, but school in September is not going to be normal. The lack of socialization, only two days on live instruction, social distancing, masks and three days of remote learning is not normal.”
Christine Blizzard-Wrobel, a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) teacher at Voorhees Middle School, voiced her concerns about teachers returning to school and juggling both in-person and remote learning through various mediums that, she believes, most teachers are not yet capable of utilizing effectively.
“I have spent my summer preparing for school this fall, with close to 20 hours of Google training, Apple training, hybrid classroom training, virtual meetings with our administration and as a member of one of the reopening subcommittees,” the teacher said.
“Not only do I not feel safe returning to my windowless classroom, I do not feel prepared to begin teaching this September, either virtually or in the hybrid setting.”
Blizzard-Wrobel added that she took as much training as possible this summer to prepare for the challenges that teaching in the 2020-2021 school year will present for instructors and students. Despite assurances from the district to parents that teachers will be prepared for the hybrid setting, she said not enough is being offered to teachers.
“When I received the schedule for the two days of in service we will have prior to students returning, I was shocked to learn that we are only being offered one hour of training,” said Blizzard-Wrobel.
“I urge you to delay the start of hybrid instruction so that we can devote time to understanding how to build quality instruction in this unprecedented time.”
Teacher Lauren Kerns echoed the same sentiment a few moments later.
“Maybe we should just go all virtual in the beginning … to give teachers more time to plan and get trained because, honestly, we don’t feel that we are trained enough,” she said. “We have all these wonderful resources being given to us and we are thankful for that. I’ve been teaching for 22 years and I am terrified that I am not going to be doing what I should be doing. I just feel that we could have a little more time.”
Sheri Kauffman, a technology specialist at VMS, spoke during public comment and informed residents that her department is working “tirelessly” with teachers. But she also requested a fully remote plan to start the school year, so more time is available for teachers to work with the new programs.
“We have not had time to train our staff,’ Kauffman explained. “We have 83 staff members just in the middle school that have clear touch boards. Every 30 minutes, they will have to sign out and move to another classroom. The technology department needs time to train their staff. It is me and one other person that will have to support the staff in the middle school.
“We can do our best,” Kauffman added, “but there is no way we are going to be able to support them with no training; we need them to be able to practice.”
Some teachers and parents also posed questions during the meeting that included how and when cleaning will be done between classes when students move between rooms, the effectiveness of each school building’s HVAC systems and protocol for students who test positive for COVID.
The school board and administration did not provide answers to those questions. Some residents did speak in favor of the hybrid plan, urging the board to go with the originally proposed plan.
“It’s clear that many teachers tonight do not want to go back, but I know there are many teachers that do want to go back and they are likely scared to speak out,” said Jaime Austino.
“To those who are speaking out against going back … many medical groups have outlined the need for as much in-person education as possible for these children. The medical community is recommending we go back and that it is safe and critical that we do.”
Following public comment, the board voted 6-2 in favor of the originally proposed reopening plan and elected not to go forward with having everyone go fully remote to start the school year. Parents still have the option to choose remote learning.
Prior to the vote, board members provided insight into their deliberations on the difficult decision to approve the reopening plan.
“In my 34 years as a board member, this is simply the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make,” said John Schmus. “Tonight, I will be voting yes for the hybrid plan. I feel that this plan offers the parents and children of Voorhees Township a choice, and I’m confident that the administration has made the safety and well-being of the children and staff a priority.”
Meanwhile, board member Monica Watson stated she would vote against the reopening plan due to concerns about air ventilation and air conditioning systems in school buildings, and the fact that touchless fixtures have not yet been installed in all school bathrooms.
“I cannot support this plan simply for the fact that we are not ready and our schools are not safe,” she said. “We all want school to be as safe as possible; not minimally safe, but safe.”
In other news:
- The board approved making a request to the state education department for emergency approval to employ staff despite the outcome of background checks. District officials could not be reached for comment regarding their reasoning on that agenda item.
- Barbara Dunleavy announced she will resign her seat on the board effective Aug. 15. The open seat is expected to be filled by the appointment of remaining board members at their meeting on Sept, 23.