SUMMIT, NJ - The Summit Public School District said it is ready to pivot -- if necessary -- if guidance from the governor or the New Jersey Department of Education changes relative to schools reopening next month. Yesterday, Governor Phil Murphy gave some leeway to districts that seek to open with 100 percent remote instruction, pending those districts' ability to show cause for doing so.

Some reasons for an all-remote learning reopening may involve, for example, a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) or insufficient HVAC capabilities. Absent an approved cause or causes, the state will continue to mandate that there is an in-person schooling option available.

"We have always been prepared to adjust based on changes to local or state guidance, and have communicated to families how fluid this situation is,” said Summit Public Schools Acting Superintendent Rob Gardella. “With any update, the District will evaluate new information and the ways in which it impacts our community before making decisions.”

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He said, “We remain committed to communicating any necessary updates or changes on reopening to the Summit community."

On August 10, the Summit Public School District held a robustly attended Zoom Community Forum to update residents on its proposed Reopening Plan and to address questions that the community had after digesting the 55-page procedural handbook for reopening -- a plan that offers families two learning options: either a five-days per week, in-person / remote plan with students attending school each weekday morning followed by an afternoon of remote learning; or a completely remote instruction five-day plan. 

The meeting, originally scheduled for August 6, but postponed because of a major power outage that followed Hurricane Isaias and kept most Summit homes in the dark, ran for over two hours. Nearly 1,000 tuned in to the District’s YouTube channel, where it was hosted. Currently, the recorded video has almost 2,700 views.

Parents who had questions about the procedures or wanted more detail were asked to submit their queries in advance -- and potentially through the meeting -- via a form on the District website. About 700 questions were submitted; the District shared ones that covered a broad range of topics. 

Questions were categorized into several topics: health and safety; facilities; instruction; special education; social emotional learning, technology; and athletics.

“It is critical for parents to remain cognizant that our plans reflect our best efforts to maximize opportunities for our community within our guidance ,” said Gardella. “We are not attempting to sell one option over another; we are not trying to make a choice for you. We believe that we have created a detailed comprehensive, in-person/remote combination model as well as a robust fully remote model.”

There is no “right or wrong” choice here, he said. 

Participant panelists in the Zoom meeting included Acting Superintendent of Schools Rob Gardella, Assistant Superintendent for Business Lou Pepe, Director of Special Education Services Doreen Babis, Director of Education Jennifer McCann, Assistant Director of Education Tanya Lopez, Assistant Business Administration Kathy Sarno, Director of Technology Doug Orr, Board of Education President Donna Miller, and Board of Education Members Michael Colon and Peggy Wong; Director of Facilities Angelo Palumbo and Communications Officer Laurene Callander. Scott Hough, who takes over as Superintendent on August 17, was also in attendance.

Gardella opened with a recap:

  • The Department of Education requires every district in the state to open with some in-person component.

  • Balancing three factors drove the plan: balancing the education of the students, the overall health of all stakeholders, and mitigating the risks of COVID-19 “to the best of our ability.”

  • COVID-19 is causing stress and fear for everyone, but the illness itself is not the only problem caused by the pandemic.

  • Education and school are essential. Not attending school regularly does pose risks for children and to families 

  • Educators are just as essential to the overall health and well-being of the community as physicians, healthcare workers, and first responders.

  • The governor believes it is safe to reopen, but the Department of Education has delivered “ambiguous guidance.”

  • The Summit plan is not in violation of any guidelines and is “just as safe as any.”

  • The plan shared is “the plan to date,” not a final product, and there are still many uncertainties which could “drastically change what we are doing,” such as final enrollment numbers; new involvement from the Department of Health which would supersede both the CDC and the Department of Education; and a change of plans by the governor. 

Gardella addressed a few “hot topic” questions toward the top of the Q&A period. 

Social distancing, and the ability for the District “to get to six feet of distance” came up a lot, he said. He said that the New Jersey Department of Health has “not taken a firm position” on appropriate distancing. He said that the local Board of Health representative continuously tells him that six feet is “a recommendation,” not a requirement. He said that the District “will distance to the best of our ability,” which, he said, means that strict adherence to six feet “may not be practicable” in any kind of in-person model, but that the District needs to wait on final enrollment numbers before they can know what distancing is possible.

Next up, he addressed why Summit is not going with an “A/B model,” where different segments of the student population attend on staggered days.

The A/B models were evaluated and “discussed at length,” he said but, while no model prevents people from gathering outside of school in the community, by “having people in (school) every day” the “community’s movement” will be minimized. He said that this way people can be screened daily, checked “that they are masked,” and ensure that they are “supervised and accountable.”

He said that this type of monitoring “may even be better” than an A/B model which "invites more unknowns in.”

He said the District was asked to reconsider an A/B model, and responded that they would “be foolish” to close any doors. 

“There are a lot of uncertainties that could force us into this type of direction,” he said.

Editor's Note: What follows is a paraphrased summary of key questions and answers and answered by the appropriate District administrator. The answer portion of the text is not represented to be verbatim, but rather intends to capture the general context of response.

Q: What is the difference between desks and student tables, and where will each be used?

A: Acrylic dividers will be used when students cannot be separated by individual desks. Where possible, desks will be distanced. The dividers will provide distance within the work area at work tables, to protect from students who are across from and next to each. All will still be wearing masks.

Q: What is the maximum amount of children in class? Can I switch to remote if there are too many?

A: A lot will be determined when enrollment numbers come in. You can switch from in-person to remote via the plan that is outlined on the website.

Q: What are the mask-wearing exceptions?

A: There is a full list of guidelines released by the Department of Education which includes when masks are inhibiting an individual's health, eating drinking, trouble breathing or unconscious, doing aerobic or anaerobic activity, under age 2, extreme heat, IEP-noted medical condition. 

Q: If PPE is limited, how are teachers and staff protected?

A: We are doing the very best we can. As essential workers, they will be at risk just as medical professionals are. We also have provided staff with face shields and plexiglass as needed.

Q: What is the procedure to disinfect sinks, door handles, etc.?

A: Cleaning procedures are available on the website under facilities. Disinfectants used are certified by the EPA and are green cleaning products. Custodians have been trained. They will do deep cleaning each day. Disinfectants are microbial effective.

Q: How often will schools be cleaned?

A: Throughout the day in high-touch areas. Custodians will go through and do extra cleaning.  Additional cleaning products will be placed in each classroom. Teachers can clean an area in the room if many people touch it, but the primary responsibility will be with the custodian. Additional custodians have been hired at elementary schools. 

Q: Why is playground use being prohibited?

A: It will not.

Q: Do K classrooms have desks or tables with plexiglass?

A: K has been discussed. Elementary desks are spaced 3- to 4 1/2-feet apart and will not have acrylic dividers. Problem areas that cannot be separated will have the dividers.

Q: Do students need to bring their own sanitizing wipes?

A: No.

Q: Will desks be cleaned between classes?

A: We are trying to restrict movement in the classroom, especially at elementary level. Cleaning throughout the day, wherever possible custodians are available, but will not clean desks between every student but will be cleaned daily.

Q: Face shields for students?

A: We do have a supply and will give to staff as needed or requested, not for students

Q: How reinforce safety measures if students are not wearing masks properly?

A: Set rules. Inform them and parents. Train to “the new norm.” Potential code of conduct violation if not done properly.

Q: Open windows? AC? Other forms of air exchange?

A: Building specific. Plan has been in place since 2007, and is in compliance with OSHA. Mechanical ventilation utilized throughout buildings. 90 percent equipped with AC. Ordered oscillating fans for HS and MS and fifth-grade wing at Franklin. For rooms with AC equipment, regulations from the state will keep temperature between 68-79 degrees. Custodians will monitor if it falls outside that. Most classrooms have windows that can be opened, and they will be opened using common sense. We can open doors into hallways if they can get outside air and cycle out interior air.

Q: 'Touchless' paper towels and soap?

A: Increase in 'touchless' faucets in the district. Every bathroom has at least one point that is 'touchless', but now in competition with every district to get equipment.

Q: What is being done to promote air circulation?

A: Additional fans coming in. MS will have fans in every room. Doing preventative maintenance to keep HVAC working and exhaust healthy. Boilers have been upgraded, and so have exhaust fans.

Q: Quarantine after travel? Keeping sick students home from school? How will the rules be enforced?

A:  Nurses will be providing constant communication and updates to the community about the importance of self monitoring, temperature checks, and quarantining for 14 days after travelling, and being aware of the CDC travel restrictions.

Q: Will I be alerted if a child or staff in the classroom has an exception to the mask-wearing mandate? Will they wear face shields instead?

A: Awaiting guidance.We can provide a face shield if they cannot wear a mask.

Q: Process for entry to school buildings--what is a visual check and how will it catch a fever?

A: Visual symptom checks are not fever checks. Just not logistically possible. We will rely on parents and staff to be diligent and self monitor and take temperature checks at home. Nurses will provide training to teachers on visual symptom checks. Staff will monitor students as they enter the building. Children with COVID signs will be sent to the nurse or sent home.

Q: Safe active-shooter drills and fire drills?

A: Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning at the state is giving monthly webinars on ideal drills which use social distancing. Information is coming.

Q: Guidance on student testing positive that would shutdown class or school?

A: We don’t have thresholds yet -- waiting for Department of Health to give guidance.

Q; Does a child need a doctor's note after a typical childhood fever?

A: Yes, a doctor needs to sign off on ear infections and strep throat etc. Must be 24-hours fever free or the student must stay at home for 10 days at least and return without any symptoms.

Q: If a parent has to travel outside of NJ into an at-risk area and cannot social distance from the child when they return, can the child attend in-person school?

A: Yes, the child can return to school unless someone in the household becomes symptomatic.

Q: What was thinking behind that, since it can take a while for symptoms to surface?

A: Following guidelines.

Q: What about college visits?

A: Many schools are offering virtual tours. If travel to states on list, must quarantine for 14-days

Q: How is the District complying with the contact tracing program?

A: School nurses working hard on this, they have taken a tracing course. They will not do tracing on their own, but will initiate tracing in school buildings and the county health office.

Q: Can you wear a shield instead of a mask?

A: No. A face shield can be worn in addition to a mask, but you need a cloth mask

Q: Would I be notified if my fully-masked child comes into close contact with a fully-masked child who tests positive?

A: This has been updated since the plan first went out. The guidance is that a close contact is anyone within six feet for over 10 minutes with or without a face mask. They will be contacted if someone is suspected/confirmed COVID

Q: Will kids with asthma have the option of every other week online, and can they take their mask off in the classroom if they are socially distanced in the classroom? 

A: Exceptions should go through building principal. We are requiring face masks. If there is a medical reason, we will consider an accommodation.

Q: If a household member is lab-confirmed positive, will the information be shared by the Board of Health or will families self report?

A: Both ways. Parents will complete illness-reporting form when students are not attending school

Q: Will all students do COVID tests after 14-day quarantine?

A: The Department of Health and the CDC are not recommending testing before coming to school, and we do not need a negative test after a quarantine, you just need to follow the guidelines of 10-days symptom free, no fever with medication for 24 hours, and all symptoms improved.

Q: How many teachers were consulted in formatting the safety guidelines? How many high-risk individuals?

A: 160 staff members involved in reopening planning, many were on the safety committee. Not sure of the high-risk number.

Q: If someone tests positive in class, will I be told?

A: Will be consulting with the Department of Health. Want to be considerate of families.

Q: If a contact needs to quarantine for 14 days, will a sibling also need to quarantine?

A: No. Just a person exposed.

Q: Will attendance policy be amended if keeping students home?

A: No. Students can take classes virtually if they feel well enough to participate in remote learning.

Q: Is there a plan for in-building aftercare?

A: Yes, the Connection will continue their programs in each elementary school and primary center, including gyms and playground. Those spaces will not be used by the school during the day, but will be cleaned and disinfected each day.

Q: Assuming sports are cleared, can children participate if they are remote learners?

A: Yes

Q: Can I switch to remote learning at any point if I chose in-person learning?

A: There are monthly registrations

Q: How do you change classes in person in 6th grade?

A: All students in MS and HS will receive regular schedules. At MS, they will be cohorted to minimize traveling throughout the building, based on math class and foreign-language choice. If  we go totally remote for a statewide closure or if you chose the remote option, their schedule would reflect the four periods in person for A day and B day..

Q: The teachers’ union expressed concern about returning to the classroom setting. Who makes the final decision about the plan?

A: The superintendent. The SEA expressed their concerns. Those concerns had numerous inaccuracies and incorrect assumptions about the return to school, and they were expressed just before the District released its plan. There was a forum for teachers and staff similar to this one following the August 4 letter from the SEA which cleared up many of the concerns.  

Q. What if you can’t staff a particular classroom or school? 

A: We have launched a substitute-recruiting campaign to increase substitute pool, but may have to close an in-person class section and shift to a remote model rather abruptly. Have to be prepared for that model, and continue professional development for staff, so they are prepared for that shift at any moment.

Q: If a child kept home for remote-only learning, how will they be evaluated for speech therapy?

A: Most child study evaluations need to be done in person. Accommodations will need to be made to meet to get assessed. In-person therapy will be provided in the morning in person, and remotely in the afternoon

Q: Will there be Driver’s Ed for sophomores

A: Yes

Q: What will the estimated class sizes be?

A: We need enrollment numbers first to know. Things are changing daily.

Q: How will distance in the classroom be maintained?

A: Whenever possible, we will adhere to six foot, but not always possible. Go online and look at video walkthroughs of typical classrooms and see that desks are three feet apart. There will be signage throughout the school. Lots of one-way traffic. If guidance from the state changes, we will do it.

Q: Ventilation?

A: Getting air in and out of the classrooms is key. It’s an air exchange issue. Need to have 40 cubic feet of air per minute, per child. We are taking the air and pushing it out. One upgrade is for the filters we use and what we have the building capability for. Most vents are about 10 years old. Architects/engineers looked into filters and got green lite to install new filters and will change them monthly.

Q: Were outdoor classrooms considered?

A: Yes, and we will consider utilizing outdoor spaces as best we can. Will require conversations with Homeland Security, principals, police, and the Dept. of Education concerning security requirements.

Q: How often will bathrooms be cleaned?

A: Daily. Throughout the day the custodians will make periodic checks to be sure they are clean.

Q: Will there be grade specific handbooks?

A: In addition to reopening the handbook, principals will provide details about dropoff, lineup, pickup, snack and other plans.

Q:  Will there be better Zoom/video conferencing participation? Will teachers be more actively present?

A: We have taken the time and heard the feedback that we need to do more about the remote learning environment and interactions. In the in person model, the teachers will live stream direct instruction to students opting for the remote option. Teachers will be teaching to in-person students, but sharing visuals like charts and demonstrations using a Google Meet so information will be shared. The audio issue will be addressed so students can hear the teacher through masks. We will look at amplification systems. Students at home can not interact with the teacher at the exact moment the instruction is given, however, we are building in time for the teacher to interact with students at home, and other students who are in the class can be brought into the conversation. In the afternoon, there can be more interactions between everyone remotely. At the HS, students can get direct instruction, and can participate in small groups so students who are remote can interact with students in class. 

“It’s all going to be a very different way of delivering instruction. All the teachers will be receiving professional instruction regarding this in order to ensure that we are upping the ante and providing a more robust, equitable educational experience for those who are in person and for those who are remote.” said Jennifer McCann.

Q: Will a link be available to access remotely if they normally attend in person, say, if they feel ill?

A: Yes, just click on Google meet link

Q: Will the normal grading system remain the same?

A: Grading will be as it typically would be

Q: Will students move between classes in the MS?

A: Right now, the master schedule has been updated to cohort the students by their math and language selections to cut down on movement. The teachers will move among the classrooms.

Q: How will tests work for remote students?

A: They will be digitized

Q: What about sound quality?

A: We recognize the need for improvement. We are inventorying amplification systems and will make purchases.

Q: Why aren't there dedicated teachers for remote students?

A: We can explore further. One challenge would be if students changed to in person, then they would have to change teachers. We need to see registration numbers.

Q: How much afternoon sessions will be pre-recorded?

A: Some of the specials. 

Q: What about book sharing?

A: Teachers and principals will create a book box for each student. When they move up to next level, books will be put aside for 72 hours so they will not longer be contaminated, if there was any contamination.

Q: What about music programs?

A: We are not forgetting the arts. We are implementing band, chorus, and orchestra across the district. It will be smaller groups.

Q: How will labs work in HS for remote learners?

A: Students who are remote will view the lab while the in-person students are conducting them. The in-person students will share their data, and will utilize a program called Gizmo. 

Q: There seems to be a disadvantage for remote learners having to be in front of a screen for hours. What resources will be made available to them?

A: We are not necessarily asking a student to sit in front of a computer for four hours. They will be able to see and hear teachers and then can do work independently. 

Q: How will you monitor kids remaining online?

A: Teachers will take attendance for each class.

Q: Is there any change in homework expectations.

A: Homework is homework. No change. 

Q. Should school supplies be purchased?

A: Wait for info from building principal

Q: Have teachers been trained to give equal time to in-person and remote learners?

A: Not over the summer, but training will start when we get back.

Q: Gyms can’t safely open, how can they have gym class?

A: Physical Education is a requirement. It will be virtual at the elementary levels. At the MS and HS there will be smaller groups in various locations, and will be held outside whenever possible?

Q: Can teachers have their kids with them when teaching remotely?

A: If a teacher is working from home because of a closure, there is a possibility that their kids may be in the vicinity, but teachers cannot bring their kids to school.

Q: Will advanced curriculum be available?

A: Yes. We are looking to take whatever structure their schedule has and continue it

Q: In K, will it be too much screen time?

A: In early elementary, mindful of screen time. We are building in opportunities for students to talk about their learning. Remote learning in the afternoon is mandatory, we are building in remote centers so students can move from activity to activity.

Q: What about students with 504 plans for extra time?

A: Those accommodations will still be implemented.

Q: Pre-K morning at Wilson, but not special ed. How can I make an attendance decision?

A: Five days a week. No changes in morning and afternoon sessions. Social distancing in pre-school and structure of lessons. There will be remote learning options for pre-school parents.

Q: Will remote students be able to meet teachers?

A: Will investigate

Q: Will counselors offer group support to students for them to discuss their response to COVID?

A:  Guidance team has been working on how to address the needs of students. A parent survey will go out for parents to share their perspective on how students dealt with isolation and closure. A second survey for students will gather further insight to see how students are managing. Data will help schools assess data in a tiered approach and allow them to implement strategies. 

Q: Why are self-contained classes scheduled for half day?

A: They will go in person full day. There will be a transition for a few weeks to get there. LLD students are not typical; that will be a hybrid model.

Q: How will speech therapy be delivered?

A: It will have to be creative. Possibly teletherapy. Sessions in morning and afternoon, but being careful not to pull students from core academic areas. 

Q: Will resource room students get it every day?

A: Will follow schedule of building and grade level

Q: What are plans for students with IEPs?

A: We realize the challenge with remote learning. There will be more synchronous learning, and more direct teacher contact. They will have to follow an actual school schedule, which will help significantly. There will be opportunities to meet in small groups. Aides have been given training on how to support teachers and students.

Q: What support for SAT/ACT prep for students with IEPs?

A: Reach out to counselor for prep classes and accommodations

Q: Will every student get a Chromebook?

A: Yes, and new devices will be distributed for any student who is having a problem with theirs. Distribution will be through a set of lockers, a 'contactless' package-management system, for anyone who is studying remotely. There is a great tech support system in place for in-school and at-home learners. Any broken device can be swapped out. Students can learn programs on 1:1 turnkey training system, allowing them to become more familiar with the Chromebooks. 

Q: Will there be interactive remote learning?

A: Yes, they can ask questions and participate. No technological limitation.

Q: Does school have bandwidth to simultaneously livestream multiple classes during morning in-person sessions?

A: We are working to ensure that the wireless network is robust. We have made significant investments. There are fewer devices taxing the network with so many students working remotely. The available bandwidth is four gigabits, which is much larger than most school districts, and that can even be scaled up.

Q: How will a teacher engage both in-person and remote students?

A: Teachers project screen, which will be streamed home. Whatever they do on screen can be seen at home and in the classroom. 

Q: What if a child is home sick?

A: If a child is home sick, they can participate virtually.

Q: What safeguards will keep students safe while online?

A: Filtering is active both in school and at home. Access to camera and microphone can be enabled only with permission. Settings can be reviewed. Resources are available online.

Q: Will Google Meet sessions be recorded? Are students made public, or just teachers?

A: Currently not enabled. Still in discussion. Any recording would have to take place on District’s end or would be a violation of policy.

Gardella said that many “valuable” suggestions were offered through the forms, and they would be investigated. 

He addressed the frustration that many people have about the requirement to return to school while restaurants and Broadway are not deemed safe for in-person attendance. He suggested that the community address the concerns to the State.

“We are doing the best that we can under our directive to reopen,” he said.

After the Q&A, he said that the District is committed to “ongoing, transparent” communication.

“We’re going to continue to identify some areas where we may need to make changes, and come up with meaningful solutions that will ultimately result in what we all want, which is just a safe environment where we can deliver excellence to our students,” he said. 

Those who did not complete student registration by the August 11 midnight deadline were automatically enrolled for in-person morning/remote afternoon model, Gardella said.