FLEMINGTON, NJ - The Flemington-Raritan Regional Board of Education gave its final stamp of approval Thursday night for the administration’s “Returning with Confidence: A School Reopening Preparedness Plan” for academic year 2020-2021.

Although all eight board members unanimously consented to the plan, a couple of the members voiced their hesitation prior to voting to approve the district’s road map, because of concerns related to the state mandating there be some form of in-person instruction during the coronavirus pandemic.

The vote was cast during a special virtual meeting Thursday in which Superintendent Dr. Kari McGann and Assistant Superintendent Dan Bland took about an hour to share more details about the days ahead, more specifically some of the scheduling decisions, such as how all math classes will take place remotely for students, grades 5 through 8.

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“This is a hard vote,” said board member Dr. Marianne Kenny. “I am terrified of the virus, and as a healthcare professional, I feel what we are doing is the best that we can, so I support the (plan).”

Board member Jeff Cain said his decision to vote in the affirmative came after a “great deal of reflection,” despite his own concerns regarding the reopening of the district’s buildings during this health crisis.

“My judgement is that Dr. (Kari) McGann, you and your team, have, with the support of the community, done everything possible to maximize health and safety for students and families and all of our employees,” he said. “This is, I think, an accomplishment in a very tough set of circumstances.”  

The board also approved a revised district calendar, pushing back the first day of school from Sept. 3 to Sept. 8, due to McGann recommending the addition of teacher in-service days on Sept. 2, 3 and 4.

As to the plan submitted to the NJDOE, McGann presented a detailed overview of the plan last Monday, diving into everything from the requirement of all students, including preschoolers, to wear face coverings at all times, outside of assigned mask breaks, to the estimated $500,000 that had already been spent on items, such as touchless hand sanitization stations.

McGann reemphasized Thursday that this plan remains a “starting point,” and the community should expect tweaks to be made after submission, as the guidance continues to change from sources, such as Gov. Phil Murphy, as well as the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Hunterdon County Health Department and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

A hybrid education, featuring a mix of in-person and virtual instruction, was the favored option among families, versus the all-remote option, as McGann announced that only about a third of about 2,900 families chose the “Virtual Learning Academy.”

The state mandated districts provide parents with an all virtual instruction option if they are not comfortable sending their kids back to the school buildings.

This all-remote learning will include a mix of live instruction over Zoom, as well as virtual meetings between teachers and students for academic and social/emotional health purposes. Administration also noted there will be opportunities for students to collaborate with each other, and assignments will be constantly posted online.  

“With our virtual academy, parents are going to see a shift from what it was in the spring,” McGann said. “While we think the springtime went very well for us having to pivot very quickly, we do know that there were things that we needed to do a little bit better.”

If a family had not submitted the survey by the deadline, their son or daughter would be automatically enrolled in the hybrid schedule (but a parent could still reach out to the district to switch).  

At this meeting, families received information on “sample” schedules for students, kindergarten to four, five to six, and seven to eight, as the “actual” schedules will vary, and be subject to change. Administration also provided a general outline of schedules for teachers.

Students who are enrolled in the hybrid option will be assigned to a homeroom teacher, and either Cohort A or Cohort B. These cohorts will alternate week-by-week between instruction in school buildings and instruction at home.

McGann noted that every effort will be made to assign siblings from the same household to the same cohort, so that siblings attend school for in-person instruction on the same days. However, she noted that some parents preferred the opposite.

“We want to do what we can to help parents navigate through this schedule never before seen in our schools before,” McGann said.

All students who take part in instruction in buildings, will have shortened schedules with “early release.” And one of the goals is limiting interaction in the hallways in an effort to reduce the spreading of any contagion.

One of the big takeaways, which was highlighted by administration Thursday, was the district’s decision to have all math classes for grades five through eight be taught virtually because of the number of different levels of math classes available to students based on preferences and needs.
If the district had hosted in-person math classes for the older grades, administration contended students would be at a higher risk to the virus because they would need to “comingle” amongst each other outside of their assigned cohorts.  

“I would, under any other set of circumstances, not favor this,” Bland said. “However, although not ideal, it is necessary because we have different levels of math classes, and in order to make sure every student receives the appropriate instructional level in math, we would need to shuffle students around, and we can’t shuffle students around in-person. It can only be done virtually. So we are doing it really as part of our health and safety precautions.”

The other core subjects – language arts (ELA), science and social studies – along with physical education, which will be taught outside, will be scheduled to take place on school campuses for these older students.

On the sample schedules provided, world language classes are listed as being in-person for grades five and six, but virtual for grades seven and eight. For kindergarten through fourth grade, these students will receive instruction virtually for science and social studies from possibly a different teacher that is not their assigned homeroom teacher.

Special classes, such as music, applied technology and art, will be taught virtually for all students.

As to the specifics, kindergarten through fourth grade students, no matter if enrolled in the hybrid or all-virtual option, will be assigned to a grade-level homeroom teacher, and Cohort A or B if taking part in the rotating in-person instruction.

Bland noted that these cohorts will be approximately eight to 12 students.

“Some of these homeroom classes will be hybrid, with Cohort A attending in-person classes one week, while Cohort B participates virtually,” Bland said. “Some homeroom classes will be designated for students opting for the all-virtual instruction. The number of hybrid versus all-virtual classes is completely dependent on the results of the recent parent survey.”

Essentially, the content of the class schedules are the same, no matter if a younger student is taking the hybrid or all-virtual track, and the only difference will be the setting in which the class is taught, and assigned homeroom teachers.

There will be a Week A and a Week B for these younger students, who will have science, social studies and other specials being taught virtually.  

“These (Week B classes) are going to be taught by a different teacher, because after all, the teacher who is teaching the in-person classes – reading, writing and math – is going to be busy in Week B, teaching the other cohort,” Bland said. “So a different teacher will be assigned. If you want to look at it this way, you can consider them like a secondary homeroom teacher, except their teaching responsibilities will be limited to science and social studies.”

Administration did not specify yet if elementary school science and social studies would only be taught virtually.

Every day, no matter if in the building or at home, there will be “extension activities” and independent reading needing to be completed at home. Also, there will be a “Counselor Corner,” a recorded school counselor initiated lesson focusing on social emotional learning.

If learning at home, there will be time to meet virtually with the primary homeroom teacher at a scheduled time as a “check-in” period. In Week B, there will be a 40-minute foundations lesson (kindergarten through second) or a word study lesson (third through fourth).

For grades five and six, students also will be assigned to a homeroom, no matter if they are enrolled in the hybrid or all-virtual option, and Cohort A or B for the in-person instruction rotation.

“The class sizes, as you might anticipate, will be roughly half of what they typically are as the students will be in Cohort A or B,” Bland said.

Students will continue to have different classes on different days, as there will be a Day 1 and Day 2 schedule, specifically with a rotation of social studies and science, no matter if receiving instruction in-person or virtually.   

There will be at-home “extension activities,” as well as an optional 20 minutes for “tutorial time” after being dismissed from the shortened in-person day. During tutorial time, as designated by the principal, teachers will be available for students who optionally seek to consult them for questions.    

Seventh and eighth grade students will be divided into “teams,” as is typical, which are about 110 or 120 students per team, and then A/B cohorts.
Each A/B cohort, about 15 students in size, will have a different rotation between English/Language Arts, science, social studies and physical education.  

“The thing that I want you to understand is that all of these classes are heterogeneous, and so they were selected for the in-person week, because when the students enter the building and arrive at their homerooms, they will be staying together,” Bland said. “Those approximately 15 students will stay together for the balance of the in-person day. They will stay in their homeroom. The English teacher will go into their homeroom (if it’s not actually the same teacher). At the end of the period, the social studies teacher will leave whatever room he or she is in, and proceed to the ELA class, which will now become a social studies class.”

Similar to the intermediate school, there will be extension activities and optional tutorial time during a virtual day, or after being dismissed from in-person instruction.

The full plan, as well as a lengthy “Frequently Asked Questions” document can be viewed by clicking here.

The Aug. 6 presentation can be found at www.frsd.k12.nj.us/Page/25.

Anyone with questions about the September reopening should email FAQquestions@frsd.k12.nj.us.