By Cheryl Conway
Virtual or in-person? Big decision parents and students in Mt. Olive had to decide on by Sunday, August 9 for the incoming school year.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Zywicki has held multiple Parent Universities on Facebook since the end of July to present the options to parents. Choice is to select a hybrid plan of A Week/B Week or continue social distance learning at home.
For more specifics on the plan, visit the Mt. Olive Township School District website or any of the district social media pages to view the options in detail.
“If you are a parent who feels that it is not safe for your child to go back to school, you can completely opt to stay fully virtual for this year,” says Zywicki. “If you are a parent who feels that it is very, very important for your kids to go back to school, they can do so under the A B Week format.”
He says, “I understand this is not going to make anybody happy,” says Zywicki. “It’s a compromised situation; it’s imperfect. It’s making the best of a very tough situation.”
Zywicki made it a point during each session to reiterate that the district’s plans can change at the state level at any time under the governor’s executive orders.
“That can shift at any point in time,” Zywicki says during the July 29 talk via Facebook. “New Jersey is still under control, however, this is shifting. As your superintendent,” and as a parent of four children, he says “you got to be prepared for both. There may be reality that we are fully virtual. This is a shifting, evolving situation.”
He also thanked parents once again for their patience.
“I appreciate your patience,” says Zywicki, and “your feedback, tremendously.”
Here are some of the main points:
For the parent survey, 2,600 parents participated in choosing which of the four options they favored the most for reentry. The options include normal return to school; return with severe social distancing; alternating days, a.m. or p.m., or weeks; virtual learning.
The most preferred based on the survey is A Week/B Week, says Zywicki. Out of those surveyed, 45 percent said they would choose to keep their child home to continue virtual learning.
“If those numbers hold true, we would have less than 50 percent of building capacity,” says Zywicki. “Is that 100 percent without risk? No it is not.”
The rate of transmission of COVID-19 has increased to 1.1 persons since Zywicki outlined the district’s reentry plan on Governor John Murphy’s press conference on June 26; at that time it was at .8, he explains.
With N.J. still paused in phase 2, no indoor dining, and indoor maximum restricted from 100 persons to 25, Zywicki says A Week/B Week with severe social distancing and face coverings is the most favorable option out of the four plans that were proposed.
“It is best for our kids to be back in school,” he says. “Kids psychologically need to learn from each other. They need to be exposed to their teachers. At the same time, “virtual learning is safest.”
He says, “when it comes to having kids come back to school, there is a risk.”
Fall sports is questionable in the district, he says. Two weeks ago, he would have said there would definitely be sports. “Now I would say that is unknown.”
The requirement is for students in N.J. to attend school in person for 180 days for four hours, or virtual.
There will be three cohorts: A Cohort; B Cohort; C Cohort or virtual.
Students in the A Week/B Week cohorts will be grouped alphabetically so siblings can stay together.
The reason for the two in-person cohorts varied per week, explains Zywicki, is to help with quarantining and contact tracing, as opposed to A Day/B Day would expose teachers to almost a full population of students every 48 hours.
The school year will begin with teachers reporting on Aug. 31 for two professional development days. A cohort will kick the first day off on Wednesday, Sept. 2. B cohort will follow suit on Sept. 3.
No school on Sept. 4.
The school day will be half days, and students in middle school and high school will have shortened periods.
“We cannot safely eat indoors,” explains Zywicki as the reasoning for half school days. “We will do grab and go lunches.”
All students, teachers and staff at all of the schools and grade levels will be enforced to wear masks.
“Everyone has to wear face masks at all times, including staff members,” Zywicki stresses in his Aug. 4 Parent University. “That’s tough.” Masks will be required on buses as well.
“Mask breaks” may be taken by going outside, he says, but that can “be complicated” if there is bad weather. “Masks are a major component to mitigating those risks,” he explains of spreading the virus especially those who are asymptomatic.
If a student does not wear his nor her mask, a parent will have to come to the school to pick up their child. Zywicki recommends parents send their kids in with two masks in case they sneeze into one.
Lunch will not be served but boxed lunches will be available to purchase to go at the end of each day.
Office hours will be held virtually in the afternoon by teachers, who will be teaching full day.
There will not be a lot of homework.
“We will not load the kids up on homework,” says Zywicki. “That is not our plan; kids have been through a lot; loading them up with homework is not the answer.”
At the high school level, all three cohorts will have synchronous instruction. The idea is “to have all kids working together although being physically distanced,” says Zywicki. “Is that perfect? No, none of our solutions are perfect.”
For sanitation, the district is exploring UV sanitation, says Zywicki, in addition to electric static guns. All organic chemicals, that are non-toxic are being used in the form of dissolving tabs with the goal to sanitize “as much as possible” touch points, and buses in between runs.
Hallways will be designated as one-way to maintain social distancing.
High school and middle school students will change classrooms but may minimize the amount of switching.
All students will get their Chromebooks with WiFi access the last week of August/beginning of September.
Co-curricular activities will not be offered if indoors.
Marching band will still be offered if held outdoors.
Students who choose in-person option will be allowed to switch to virtual during the first semester at the high school, or trimester for the other grade levels.
Students who choose virtual will not be allowed to switch to in-person during the semester or trimester.
Class sizes will be at 40 percent capacity, so less than 15 students per class.
Attendance will be normal; students will have an excused absence if they get diagnosed with COVID-19. If a child is not feeling well and is supposed to attend school that week, he or she can attend virtually to avoid being marked absent.
Temperature checks will not be given per student or staff to enter but each must complete a health questionnaire each morning before leaving his or her house.
Teachers are still being determined as Zywicki says he still does not know which teachers are returning.
Six Guiding Questions:
“Nothing is 100 percent,” says Zywicki, adding that they are doing their best. He mentioned six guiding questions which include:
“How can we continue to provide the safest learning environment?” Zywicki says the number one district goal is to keep the kids and staff safe, and at the same time improve upon the virtual learning.
“This time will be much more robust,” Zywicki says regarding virtual learning.
The second guiding question is: How can the district ensure it will continue differentiation and personalization for all students? The goal is to identify for each kid his or her academic goals, social/ emotional goals, wellness goals, level of learning and career goal such as playing an instrument, computer science or coding.
“It’s going to be a very, very different year,” says Zywicki, with a “development of personalized learning plan for each kid.” He says there is a “need to stay on top of the progress of every student.”
He says “all of our kids” are at risk academically, socially and emotionally. “This was a traumatic event. We are going back to a year that is not normal.”
Studies have shown that the average student is coming into the school year with a 50 percent regression after this past year of virtual learning. Mt. Olive, however, bench-marked its students at a 20 percent regression, which means they are coming into the school year at an average proficiency of 80 percent.
Third emphasis will be placed on the social/emotional learning as there has been “a lot of pressure” on students with the isolation of being at home. “The stress of there being a global pandemic is affecting our young people and our staff as well.
Fourth issue is “we can’t ignore what’s been going on with society,” says Zywicki, in terms of systemic racism. “How can we advance our culture of anti-racism?” He says, “we’ve made major strides,” and wants to continue that conversation.
Fifth question: “How can we advance our virtual learning? Last year we did our best,” he says, adding the district was way ahead of other school districts since March. But there is a need to improve and make it more synchronous, he says.
“I don’t mean teachers just talking in a screen,” says Zywicki. “Teachers are curating learning; using different pedagogues” with a station rotation model, with kids working together, jigsaw, reciprocal teaching method.
All the district teachers are google classroom certified, he says, adding that they each completed 2,350 hours of professional development.
The sixth question is How can Mt. Olive continue to stay innovative?
“In our DNA, Mt. Olive, who we are in Marauder nation, we are innovative,” he says. “We are always ahead of the curve. You see that in our facilities, in our academics, in our programs.” The geodome just went up at the high school offering hands-on horticulture, agriculture, aquaculture.
“We want to keep up with our innovative programs,” says Zywicki.
“This is a really rough time for families,” concludes Zywicki. “None of these decisions are easy. I want to get the kids back to school as quickly as possible,” he says. “I want to get to option two as soon as possible” but “right now we have to err on the side of safety, that’s our number one district goal.”
Stay tuned around Aug. 19 when Zywicki plans to provide more details on the reopening plan and school calendar.