The Mt. Olive School District is springing into action “to return to normal” later this month.
After almost a year to the day since the MOSD shutdown from the pandemic and moved to remote learning, the district is reopening its doors to all students and staff. Students have been reporting to school on a rotating basis every other week since September; the option of remote learning has been constant and will continue for those who choose to stay that course.
MOSD Superintendent Dr. Robert Zywicki made his announcement at the last Board of Education meeting on Monday, Feb. 22, at Mt. Olive Middle School in Budd Lake, just one month before the kids are set to report to in-person learning.
“Our kids do best when they are in school and in person,” Zywicki told parents during his Feb. 23 Parent University. At the same time, he says he is “trying to provide as much parental choice as possible.”
During his Feb. 25 Parent University, Zywicki reemphasizes, “Kids learn best when they are together with their teachers. “The more we can get kids together,” he says, that is better for their mental health.
Details of this latest news was shared by Zywicki at the BOE meeting, two Parent University sessions, and three different ZOOM sessions with grade levels on Monday, March 1.
The plan is to have Cohorts A and B return to full-person learning, together, starting Monday, March 22. Zywicki is calling this Cohort IP for In Person. Cohort C will still exist but will be changed to Cohort V for Virtual.
Zywicki, along with the support of the Mt. Olive BOE, based their decision from guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Jan. 19.
With fewer staff members quarantining, plexiglass shields up on all desks and lunchroom tables, shields for all students along with other PPE, and CDC guidance, MOSD is ready “to return to normal.”
“We are moving in the right direction, which is good news,” says Zywicki.
As of Feb. 22, 17 staff members were in quarantine, down from 86.
Zywicki says 93 percent of the staff in the district can return to in-person teaching, which is less than 10 percent. Some teachers are still on accommodations like those going through chemotherapy or have a high-risk pregnancy, he says.
Since social distancing and capacity orders are still in effect in New Jersey, students in Cohort V will have to wait until May 1 if they would like to switch to in-person learning, he says. If most choose this route, Zywicki says seniors will be the priority given their last year.
“Priority will go to the seniors and getting them in,” says Zywicki.
Why May 1?
“I never want to promise you something that I cannot deliver on,” says Zywicki, during the Feb. 23 Parent’s University. “We maybe able to accelerate that.
“We said May 1st because a lot of things can happen,” says Zywicki. “What if we have a spike after spring break?”
Speaking of spring break, Zywicki stresses the importance of students and staff quarantining if they travel during spring break, which is set for April 2-9. He plans to have a conversation with the BOE on this issue.
“We as a community need to come together to support each other,” says Zywicki. “There will be ramifications for those who don’t quarantine after traveling or spring break or whenever.” Fourteen days of quarantine is specified by the Mt. Olive Department of Health, he adds.
On March 9, 2020, MOSD decided to close its doors for two weeks to prepare for remote learning. The district began its remote learning on March 16.
The three main goals of the district continue to be safety, personalized learning and social-emotional learning.
In May/June, 2020, 60 members of the community worked together to develop four options: Option 1-Traditional School Day; Option 2 Traditional School Day plus Social Distancing; Option 3 Split Schedules; Option 4 Virtual Distance Learning.
Up until now, the district has been working with Options 3 and 4. Cohort A attends the first week; Cohort B attends the second week. There are 30 percent of students in each cohort who attend each week, says Zywicki.
Starting March 22, it will switch to Options 2 and 4. Combining Cohorts A and B will allow 60 percent of students into the schools at one time, with the remaining 40 percent staying virtual.
“Cases are down 77 percent,” nationally, says Zywicki, during the BOE meeting.
Based on medical research from John Hopkins Medical School, CDC Guidelines in the Journal of the American Medical Association, CHOP Guidance, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Zywicki says school leaders have agreed to the in-person plan.
While N.J. is still in the orange with many positive cases, Zywicki points to other towns such as Morristown and Patterson for the high positivity rate.
According to Zywicki, 10 percent of the adult population in Mt. Olive have been vaccinated against the COVID 19 virus, as he points to the Mt. Olive Twp. Mayor’s Facebook posts.
“You see it has trended down tremendously,” says Zywicki. “Things are headed in the right direction.”
Zywicki reasons that the return with Cohort IP is still a few weeks away.
“March 22 is a month from now,” he says. “We are not doing it tomorrow; we’re still being patient."
With 5,000 kids in six schools, “it’s like doing a k-turn with an aircraft in the Panama Canal. It’s not easy; it’s complicated. We are very happy to move forward.”
MOSD is armor ready with shields, PPE and weekly testing. Zywicki explains the risk mitigation protocols that have been put into place for a safe return.
All six of MOSD’s schools have been upgraded to provide MERV 13 Air Filters, which can help decrease people’s exposure to airborne pathogens that spread COVID-19 and other illnesses, according to studies.
“That is huge,” says Zywicki, who is thankful for the district’s commitment to keeping facilities updated. “Our board supports capital projects on a continual basis.”
Also, the guidance for quarantining after exposure is less stringent. It has changed from requiring everyone to quarantine if exposed, to only those individuals who have come in contact “within six feet in 15 minutes” with someone who has tested positive, explains Zywicki. As a result, perhaps just four students may have to quarantine rather than the entire class and the teacher, he says.
While the district is “still shooting for six feet of social distancing,” as directed by CDC guidance, it is ready with its armor. MOSD ordered and has received 5,000 plexiglass dividers which will be placed at every student’s desk district-wide, and at lunch-room tables, says Zywicki.
There will also be drapes on school busses; 5,000 face shields available to students and staff along with sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer.
As per the CDC, Zywicki says the teachers are not supposed to spray the desks within one minute of a room switch. As a result, the wipes will be on the desks for the students to use “if they choose to do so.”
Two cleanings per day will be conducted using neutral organic CDC approved cleaning solutions and UV sanitation in classrooms and on busses.
Students will be required to complete daily health screenings.
Every Thursday, the MOSD provides free testing at MOHS for all students, staff and community members.
Rigorous contact tracing is also completed by school and community nurses, says Zywicki.
“Nurses do pre-work,” says Zywicki. “We are able to contact trace everything out. We don’t have to shut the whole school down,” when there are positive cases, like it did in September and October with Tinc Elementary shutting down twice and five of the other schools also shutting down.
Schools will enforce one-way hallways and kids may work in pods.
Zywicki says funding for the PPE, face shields, plexiglass dividers, sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer has come from grants, “costing taxpayers nothing.”
MOSD received $300K from CARES Act funding, he specifies.
In September, MOSD received 5,000 face shields; just recently, 5,000 plexiglass dividers totaling $165K, he adds.
The Merve 13 filters had already been installed.
“This district, every year since I’ve been here, we’ve made regular upgrades to our facilities,” says Zywicki.
Some parents have criticized the number of emails informing them about the positive COVID 19 cases.
Zywicki explains that MOSD is sending out school-wide letters rather than district-wide. So parents are receiving notice of positive cases at their kid(s)’ school rather than district-wide notification of cases.
Students who are currently in-person can decide to go virtual at anytime. Some athletes have decided as a team to stay home and learn remotely to protect their team’s season, says Zywicki.
Some are concerned with the 60 percent of students reporting on the same day, but not Zywicki. He reasons that although 60 percent are signed up for in-person, about 5 percent to 10 percent are not coming into school for whatever reason so that number on any typical day will be more like 55 percent.
Junior students who drive will be allotted a parking spot, says Zywicki.
School principals are considering use of lockers to students.
Lunch will be served during the school day at all the schools while maintaining the six feet social distancing mandate, says Zywicki.
“Since we have indoor dining in NJ,” MOSD can offer lunch but six-feet apart and plexiglass dividers.
Students in grades K-5 have been eating lunch in school since September, says Zywicki, adding he is ready to expand this districtwide. Students will wear their masks and then remove them to eat. Multiple students will be allowed to sit at the same table. Plexi-glass dividers will be at all lunch tables, with tables spread throughout school buildings rather than just inside cafeterias. When the weather gets warmer, lunch tables will even be moved outside, he says.
“As soon as weather permits, we will do outdoor dining,” he says.
For end of the school year events, a senior prom venue has already been identified; an outdoor graduation is planned like last year; outdoor moving up ceremonies for fifth graders and eighth graders are also planned.
Physical education classes can resume once the snow melts and can be held outside, says Zywicki. Indoor gym classes will not yet be offered.
“When kids are engaged in physical activity, they have to be given the option to take their masks off if they are uncomfortable,” Zywicki explains.
Music programs can also continue so MOSD will look at using the MOHS Dome for music classes.
Since all snow days for this school year have been exhausted, the MOSD can only allow early dismissals or delayed openings to avoid an extension to the school year, says Zywicki.
Some parents and students question why MOSD has returned to full day schedule.
Zywicki says it has been a year since full day and it is time to return “to guard against learning loss. Kids thrive off of routines; kids are connecting with their classmates. I understand it is an adjustment.”
BOE Member Dr. Antoine Gayles says this step to return all students to school is “really tremendous.” At the same time, he shares his plea to the community.
“The schools are probably the safest place to be,” says Gayles. “I’m appealing to the community- we need to continue to be vigilant for the remainder of the year. If your child is sick, please stay home.”
He says, “if you are a household, it affects everyone in the household. Let’s do our part to help us sustain this monumental step forward.”
BOE President Dr. Anthony Giordano also chimes in: “If you don’t feel it safe, no board member will tell you to put a child in harm’s way. Schools are the safest places right now,” adding that there has yet to be a spread of COVID 19 in the schools “the way it has in our communities.”
Zywicki is thankful of the BOE support, parents and staff.
“The support of the board is how we are able to do this,” says Zywicki.
The virtual option will continue for as long as it is permitted.
For those who stay remotely, “that’s a choice you are making,” says Zywicki. “I don’t see the virtual cohort going away,” unless mandated by the governor.