District eyes move back to five day instruction for youngest learners

Decision would affect kindergarten through fifth grade students.

When can Moorestown students return to some form of “normal” schooling? That’s a question no one can foresee an answer to at this point, but Superintendent Dr. Scott McCartney provided attendees at last Tuesday’s board of education meeting with an overview of options being considered as the world gets closer to that normal.

McCartney began his presentation at the Feb. 16 virtual meeting by acknowledging that going back to some version of normalcy will be a gradual process. At present, the district is considering ways to get hybrid students in kindergarten through third grade back into school five days a week. 

The district recently sent out a survey to families to get feedback about the district’s current models and how families feel about some of the district’s potential options. It got 1,767 responses. One of the questions posed to families was this: In the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, would they prefer an entire district shutdown or shutdowns on a school-by-school basis? About 66 percent of respondents said they would prefer the latter.

As it stands, the district is eyeing strategies to get hybrid students in kindergarten through third grade back to school for five days a week of in person instruction. But before any shift toward that learning model, the district needs to meet a few criteria. McCartney referred to these as “trigger points” for change during his board of education presentation on Feb. 16. 

The Burlington County Department of Health needs to downgrade the COVID  threat level from high to moderate/low, which it recently did.

Serving school lunches still poses an issue. Gov. Phil Murphy would need to issue an executive order increasing indoor dining to 50 percent in order for the district to serve lunch. Serving the meal would enable the district to transition from an early dismissal to a full day schedule. 

The district would also need county health department’s guidelines on social distancing to be less strict or removed to accommodate a full return. That has yet to happen, so the district is eyeing the purchase of Plexiglass for pre-K through third grade classrooms. The estimated cost would be somewhere in the $50,000- to-$60,000 range, but community members have already reached out and are eager to start a fundraising campaign. 

The district’s next step is to survey families with students in kindergarten through third grade to see where the interest lies in terms of five day, in person instruction. From there, administrators would need to ensure they have proper staffing and infrastructure to accommodate the number of students returning. 

The Burlington County Office of Education would need to review any modifications to the district’s plans, and the district would need to clearly communicate to families that they acknowledge the increased risk in sending students back to school five days a week.

Carole Butler, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, said it’s the students at the lower levels who are struggling most with the current instructional models, so the district is focused on getting those learners back into the classroom first.

She stressed that returning students to five day instruction at the middle and high school levels poses a greater challenge, given flexibility of schedules and classroom changes throughout the day. 

“I can tell you we’re struggling every day with what’s the right methodology,” Butler noted.

If the district survey indicates an interest in a full return and schools can accommodate the number of students who want to go back, implementation of a five day, in person schedule could begin after spring break sometime, in mid-  April. McCartney said communications about the decisions will be forthcoming.