The Jefferson Township Board of Education fielded questions from a wary public eager for answers on a safe return to school for their children last Monday.
Superintendent Jeanne Howe opened the meeting by addressing a ledger of questions posed by Jefferson Township parents, some of whom staged a sit-in outside the high school while the board held its proceedings.
“With regard to transparency, I or a member of my team have answered every email that was sent to me,” said Howe in opening Monday’s statements. “The time period for the public comments at Board Meetings has been extended beyond the 30-minute time limit. The public comment periods are a time for the public to make comments to the Board of Education, they are not intended for the public to ask questions, yet we have allowed that to take place as a way to provide answers to questions the public has had.”
In her report, Howe remarked that the lack of substitute teachers has been the biggest obstacle to full-on reopening. Special education and ESL classes have opened in select elementary schools (such as Ellen T. Briggs, Stanlick, and Cozy Lake). The pool of substitutes is not yet wide enough to accommodate large-scale staff absences.
“I need to reiterate that everyone wants the students to return to the buildings,” Howe said. “We all realize that virtual learning is no substitute for in-person instruction, I would like to point out that I am faced with two bad choices: virtual learning or open for in-person learning and not having enough substitute staff to do so safely.
“I have said that when the governor gave the choice for the individual districts to make, his lack of leadership saved his political career at the expense of ours. This indecisiveness is ripping communities across the state apart at a time when many in the community are tired, scared, and have been negatively impacted by Covid-19 in one way or another. I ask that we rise above and join together as a community to support our children and students. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of Covid-19, our students deserve nothing less.”
Howe added that proper precautions are being implemented across the district for the full return of in-person proceedings. PPE (including gloves, gowns, boots, and face masks and shields) and temperature scanners are installed, the latter being placed at the entrance of all buildings of the middle school and high school campus. Staff members have already been equipped with a face shield and two washable cloth masks.
Hallways and signage have been adjusted to promote social distancing, while hand sanitizer is also readily available throughout the building.
To combat the substitute shortage, which is prevalent throughout the state, Howe mentioned that a bill has been proposed that will allow anyone that is at least 20 years old and has earned at least 30 college credits (the current minimum is 60 credits) to apply for a certificate. Those interested in inquiring about daily substitute teaching spots are encouraged to contact the Human Resources department of Jefferson Township Public Schools.
There is no timetable for an in-person resumption, but Howe is analyzing the situation every two weeks, whereas several districts have already committed to virtual settings through their first marking period.
On the subject of virtual learning, Howe acknowledged some early snags in the process, but help is being brought in to combat the issue.
“The technology department has been working diligently to determine the cause of these issues. We are only using about half of the network’s bandwidth, so we are confident it is not a strain on our network,” Howe explained. “The district has hired a consultant who is also working with many other districts throughout the state that are experiencing similar problems. We are hopeful the consultant will develop ways to resolve the connectivity issues. In the meantime, the district is only bringing half of the staff into the building each day in an effort to relieve some of the issues.”
In addition to Howe’s headlining updates, Monday’s meeting also featured several presentations. Howe presented the schools’ Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying Scores, with Jefferson Township Middle School earning the best score in the area (77 of a possible 78) and well as the Class of 2020’s graduation statistics. The latter featured 235 graduating 12th-grade students, with five retained as part of their individualized education program. Assistant Superintendent Roger Jinks discussed the results from the science portion of the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments. Administered at grades 5, 8, and 11, the best results emerged from Arthur Stanlick Elementary School, which saw 37 percent of its fifth graders score in the top two levels (indicating either an “Appropriate” or “Advanced” understanding of the material).