School’s back in session, virtually that is. While Cherry Hill Public Schools originally planned to reopen schools with a hybrid model, the district pivoted a week from the official start of school and announced the year would start with all-remote learning.
The decision to defer hybrid instruction until November has since been met with pushback from some parents. At the Sept. 15 board of education meeting, Superintendent Joseph Meloche said the district received a “tremendous response” from families voicing their concerns about the switch.
A handful of those concerned parents were just outside the meeting at the Malberg Administration Building with signs demanding the district implement the hybrid plan. Around 15 parents — nearly all of whom wore masks — stood in the parking lot and attempted to make their presence known.
Parent Rick Short, who organized the protest, said the goal was to get the school board’s attention. He added that the protest was born out of personal frustration, because he’s watched his son struggle with the fully remote model.
Based on social media reactions, Short sensed he wasn’t alone in his frustrations, so he put out a call to other parents to join him. He and the parents he’s spoken with are concerned about the amount of screen time children are experiencing with the remote model.
As it stands, the district plans to implement its hybrid model on Nov. 9. In a letter to the school community published on Sept. 1, Meloche, board President Lisa Saidel and board Vice President Laurie Neary explained the reason for the delay, citing concerns from staff as a driving factor in the delayed start of in-person instruction.
Short said the district has repeatedly emphasized that school buildings are considered safe and ready for a return to school, so he doesn’t see why students can’t return as early as October.
“What I’m worried about is, come Nov. 9, that there’s another excuse that our children can’t come back to school,” Short noted.
While Meloche did not directly address the protest, he stressed that he understands the last-minute switch was upsetting to some families.
“People have been impacted by that, and it’s brought a lot of challenges for folks,” Meloche admitted. “It was not an easy decision.”
As of Aug. 25, about 58 percent of families have selected the hybrid model, 38 percent have chosen fully remote and 5 percent of families did not respond to the district’s survey. Melcohe said the district still anticipates Nov. 9 as the start date for hybrid instruction.
The superintendent also emphasized that he shares parent concerns about screen time, and he doesn’t expect any student or staff member to spend six straight hours in front of a device. He’s been in talks with principals and faculty to discuss that issue and to see what sort of schedule teachers are providing.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, concerns from several parents who took issue in writing were read. Assistant Superintendent and board Secretary Lynn Shugars read the comments at Tuesday’s meeting.
Parent Carolina Bevad’s comment referred to virtual instruction as “cold” and “impersonal.” She said teachers can’t easily assess student understanding in a virtual format, and kids are completing tasks without support. She called for the district to return to in-person instruction.
“Virtual learning is a disgrace to elementary education,” Bevad wrote.
Several parents submitted the same comment, though it was unclear which group facilitated the collective response, read several times during public comments: “Virtual format is developmentally detrimental for elementary students and a gross misuse of hard-earned tax dollars. Allow elementary students back to school immediately so they can receive the free and appropriate public education to which they are constitutionally entitled.”
Meloche stressed that while challenges will undoubtedly continue, the community needs to give instructors time and allow them to make connections with students. He also encouraged parents to act as a model and a source of calm support amid the chaos of the year.
“One of the things that I always ask in our community is that when people disagree — and people are going to disagree, that’s okay — that they do so in a respectful manner,” Melcohe noted.
“The kids are watching us as adults. They really are. The kids respond based on how we, as adults, respond.”