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HVRSD rejects alternate plan for school start

by Amie Rukenstein

In a marathon special session Friday evening, the Hopewell Valley Regional School District (HVRSD) Board of Education considered and rejected the administration’s proposal to alter its previously announced back to school plan during the pandemic.

The Board had previously accepted a hybrid plan, developed over the summer by a subcommittee of parents, teachers, and administrators, in which students would go to school part-time and do a remote program from home part-time. Parents also have the option to keep their children home and do 100% remote learning. 

The meeting was opened with a presentation by Superintendent Dr. Thomas Smith who explained that in recent days, the administration had fielded numerous emotional pleas from parents and staff to delay the start of the school year and to instead phase-in reopening. Smith explained that phased-in reopening would enable the administration to react more quickly and effectively to any issues that might arise.  He said he has received many expressed concerns about starting all 2,700+ students on the same day.

He added that “another big thing to acknowledge,” in revising the hybrid plan, “is that every district around us has revised their plans and will now have a fully remote start. And that impacts us.”

His presentation detailed a plan in which all district students would start school remotely on September 9. On September 21, the youngest students would return to school utilizing the hybrid model.  On September 28, the rest of the elementary students would be phased in and, finally, on September 30, the middle and high school students would commence the hybrid model.

Immediately after his presentation, Board members expressed doubts about the necessity of delaying in-person reopenings.

Board Member John Mason repeatedly expressed his belief that the hybrid model previously accepted is “the best plan in the State.”  He stated: “We need to get the students in on day one. Our plan is great and we are ready. You [Smith] and the teachers and administration have done an amazing job and I can’t stress enough that we need to go ahead with the original plan.”

Board members Adam Sawicki and Sarah Tracy emphasized that the early part of the year is optimal for taking advantage of outdoor classrooms as a way to ensure social distancing among students.

Several times during the meeting, Smith acknowledged that, more than anything, the proposal to delay the start of school was to relieve anxiety. “At this point, it’s about dealing with our staff, because it is an emotional thing,” he said.

Hopewell Valley Education Association president Danielle Arias echoed Smith’s acknowledgment of teachers’ concerns indicating the HVEA, which is the local teacher’s union, supports a delayed in-person start to school. (NJEA, HVEA’s parent organization, supports an all-remote opening to school).

Board member Jessica Grillo reacted to Smith’s explanation saying, “We have always committed to pivoting and adjusting the plan based on health data but the adjustments right now aren’t rooted in data.

Of the 94 comments made during the evening, fewer than six were in favor of delaying the in-person portion of school. 

Commenter Jennifer Mahan echoed Grillo: “I thought we were being a leader in the County for taking a rational approach.”

Another commenter towards the end of the public session said, “Three pediatricians, one hospital nurse, and more than 80 parents have commented this evening. Everyone agrees we need to get the kids back to school.”

After more than three hours of discussion, the motion for a vote was posed: “to see if we would accept the plan with the amendment to include the phase in method.”  The motion was defeated in a narrow 5-4 vote.

The votes were as follows:
Jessica Grillo no
Bill Herbert no
Jenny Long yes
John Mason no
Alyce Murray yes
Debra O’Reilly yes
Adam Sawicki no
Sarah Tracy no
Deborah Linthorst yes

Smith also spoke during the meeting about the District’s insufficient elementary staff and the unlikelihood of being able to provide a full five-day in-person learning experience. So, as of now, the District expects that the elementary schools will, like the middle and high schools, follow an A/B schedule of alternating one day in school and one day home. The lack of staff, he explained, is due to the dual issues of more staff required to accommodate in school and remote-learning students and that some teachers will have their own childcare issues and will be on family leave.

When asked by commenter Nancy King whether the community can be sourced for volunteers, Smith responded that the District has advertised heavily for long-term substitute teachers and that anyone interested should apply.

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