Medford’s kindergarteners go back to in person learning

Five day plan will help determine when other grades can return

Remote Kindergarten teacher Taylor Gallagher meets one of her students in person (Keira Scussa/Special to The Sun).

It’s back-to-school season for Medford’s kindergarteners, 229 of whom will return for five day, in person learning this week.

The five day plan was a result of six weeks of planning by Medford Township School District administrators and principals. On Feb. 16, students were invited back for half day learning.

“Hours and hours of work and meetings went into this,” said Keira Scussa, the district’s assistant superintendent.

A preliminary plan was presented to the board of education in November. In January, the district surveyed kindergarten parents, more than three quarters of whom said they’d prefer students to receive entirely in person instruction.

Once the survey was complete, the administration had to tackle several different facets to make its plan a reality. First, were the teachers ok with in person instruction?

“The teachers were the ones telling us we need our students back in front of us,” Superintendent Joseph Del Rossi said. “This creates so much more time for them to spend with each group.”

Once teachers were on board, a plan for transportation, teachers, space and parent involvement were created, but not without a price. Some students will attend school in the morning, while others will go in the afternoon. About 25 bus drivers were recruited to work hours outside of their contracts in order to get students to and from school, home and child care centers like the YMCA.

Medford schools hired two new kindergarten teachers who will teach the 16 fully remote students. The total cost of bringing the 4- and 5-year-olds back is around $135,000. 

That money, Del Rossi noted, is worth spending if it means students can be in front of their teachers more.

“Primary education is essential,” the superintendent explained. “Everyone should be in front of their teachers, but kindergarteners need to be in front of their teachers.”

The kindergarten program will be viewed as an example to gauge if it’s possible for other grades to return to school. Del Rossi said he’d love to have all students back for five day, in person instruction immediately, but the district’s budget and space are limited and administrators must continue to make decisions that satisfy state and local COVID guidelines.

Earlier in the year, Del Rossi sent letters to members of the state Department of Education, the Burlington County Assembly, state senators and others asking them to reconsider restrictions placed on schools during the pandemic. 

Parents followed suit, but still, state COVID guidelines for schools have changed minimally since students went back in September.

The hybrid learning program that first through eighth graders in the district use is less than ideal, Del Rossi admitted. The district has offered teachers professional development, purchased new learning applications and given instructors access to technology “coaches” who help them understand applications.

“We’re very proud of the programming we’re providing,” Scussa said.

Del Rossi said the district has done what it can to support teachers who have had to pivot to online.

“We were just thrown into this,” he added. “Overnight, we had to change more than 100 years of education.”