The Gloucester Township Public Schools Board of Education met for a virtual session on Aug. 24 and discussed components of its reopening plan once more before students return on Sept. 8.
Superintendent John Bilodeau and Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Tim Trow gave a presentation that, in large part, focused on and explained the science behind district decisions made during COVID-19. At its last meeting, the two men discussed at length the reopening plan for in-person learning.
“We wanted to provide everybody an update as of this evening,” Bilodeau said at the recent meeting. “Last month, we did quite a bit about the restart and there is quite a bit of information that I’ve tried to communicate as best as possible … So a significant amount tonight is going to talk about the science.”
The district had previously announced its plan to offer a hybrid model of instruction, with each grade population split into two cohorts. One group will attend school in person on Monday and Tuesday, while the other group will learn remotely. The two groups would switch places on Wednesday and Thursday, with Friday as a remote learning day for all district students.
Certain students are eligible for a 100-percent remote learning option, as long as they meet certain requirements set forth by the district.
According to statistics provided by the district through parent and teacher surveys, 41.3 percent of parents preferred the Space First Plan that splits students into groups for in-person instruction while also using remote, while 35.4 percent of parents favored an All in Plan that would have students in school for most or all days of the week. Another 23.3 percent of parents indicated that they would choose all-remote learning, if possible. District staff members overwhelmingly supported the Space First Plan as well, with 70.7 percent in favor, compared with 29.3 percent for the All in Plan.
During the latest board meeting, Bilodeau presented a COVID-19 Activity Level Report updated by the state Department of Health that showed the timeline of COVID’s statewide activity on a weekly basis.
The chart, which includes low, moderate, high and very high, dates to Feb. 15. While March 21 to May 16 saw high and very high levels of COVID-19 in the state, New Jersey has been at the moderate level since May 23, according to the state Department of Health.
“That is going to be a color chart that this district will use to determine whether we are going to be in person or we are going to be remote,” Bilodeau explained. “But for over 90 days, we have been holding in the moderate level, and I pray that we don’t go the wrong way.”
The district also presented residents with a chart that breaks the state into six different groups based on COVID activity levels, something Bilodeau said the district will also utilize to determine any future decisions. The northeast and northwest parts of the state currently have a low activity level, while the four regions that make up the rest of the state are at moderate levels, according to the health department.
Bilodeau said the district plans to post updates regarding the state chart on the district website throughout the school year in order to keep residents informed on how the state’s southwest region is doing with regard to COVID, as well as the rest of the state.
Discussing the physical return for students, Trow said the reduced number returning in person, coupled with numerous health precautions and increased social distancing, will help keep all students safe.
“At the current time, only about 30 percent of our students on that Monday through Thursday hybrid approach will be in school on any given day, which is a drastic difference from what we’re all familiar with and used to seeing,” Trow said.
Board member Jennifer O’Donnell asked after the presentation about the potential return to full in-person instruction at some point during the 2020-’21 school year.
Bilodeau said since the district plans to heavily follow recommendations from the state Department of Health regarding in-person instruction and remote learning, it would certainly consider the move if warranted. But such a change would require plenty of time to implement.
“That’s a great question … if the scientific community and the state department of health believed that the risk factor continues to be low and we get guidance from the department of education, then yes we intend to go back,” Bilodeau said in response to O’Donnell’s question.
“I remind everyone of how big this district is; we can’t just do it over the weekend. That certainly would be a lot of discussion with all of our staff.”
But Bilodeau said if the discussion were brought up during the middle of a marking period, he would recommend the district finish that current period, while also planning for the following marking period to have five-day, in-person instruction. He added that scenario is currently difficult to plan for.
“That’s a difficult question to answer tonight because I don’t know where we’re going,” Bilodeau noted.
The district’s next meeting will be a virtual session at 7 p.m. on Sept. 21, but board members will all meet in person at the administration building.
According to Solicitor Dan Long, the maximum number of persons allowed at the meeting is 25, including board members and administrators, so the district will continue to use Zoom as a way for the public to attend.