Jefferson’s Superintendent of Schools Jeanne Howe proposed to change the start date for 2020 classes from Wednesday, September 2, to Tuesday, September 8. Howe proposed this plan to give teachers more time to prepare for the unprecedented school year, with a mix of virtual and in-person classes. This revised calendar school year will use one of six emergency closing days for the academic year.
In her report at the board of education meeting this past Wednesday, Howe criticized Governor Phil Murphy (D-NJ) for “not following his own plan.” While schools were originally supposed to reopen under phase four, Murphy has kept the state under phase two since June.
With the possibility of guidelines changing at any time and Jefferson’s reopening plan still under review by the state’s Department of Education, Howe said that a lot is still uncertain and recommended parents prepare a back-up plan for childcare in case the district has to go all virtual.
“I know the power of in-person education, and the district will push to have that until it has to shift to all virtual,” Howe said.
Criticism from both sides
Many parents and staff members called into the three-hour long virtual meeting to express their concerns for the upcoming school year. Some of them didn’t think the district was properly protecting staff members and children from contracting COVID-19.
Teachers from the union said they were happy to see Howe extend the start date to the school year and hope to see the district move to all-virtual. Colleen Meade and Laura Ajaj, teachers at the middle school and high school respectively, were among some of the staff members who expressed concern that there isn’t enough ventilation in the classrooms to protect people from getting infected.
Some parents criticized the district for not reopening schools enough. At the July meeting, the board of education hired fall sports head coaches but held off on hiring the assistant coaches until the next meeting. When they decided to wait until the September meeting instead, parents of student athletes demanded the board to reconsider, many of them citing the need for more help to properly train students for the upcoming season. However, with a delayed start to the fall sports season and a limit on practice time, Howe said this decision needed to wait until the next meeting.
Special education questions answered
When the original reopening plan announced on July 31 didn’t include specific information for special education, many parents of students with special needs had a lot of questions unanswered and a deadline fast approaching to determine whether their children would start the year virtually or in-person. Jefferson’s Special Education Parent Advisory Group (SEPAG), who formally introduced themselves at this meeting along with the newly consolidated Jefferson Township Education Fund, worked with the Director of Special Services Juceyka Figueroa to get these questions answered.
All students with language and learning disabilities who opt into in-person classes will remain in their self-contained classrooms for the entire instructional day, unless they have another special education program.
Elementary school students with special needs who opt into virtual learning will be assigned to a grade level teacher who will provide a mix of live instruction and time to do independent work. On their non-cohort day, students will be given work to do independently and their teacher will be available some time after 1:30 p.m. to answer any questions. Wednesdays, which are all-virtual days, will be a mix of independent work and synchronous learning time with office hours for the teacher from 3-3:30 p.m.
Students with special needs at the middle and high school level will have a similar structure, but during their synchronous learning time, they will have their cameras and microphones off and can use the chat feature to ask questions. The teacher can unmute them at any time if the question requires it. All students with an aide will work with that aide during their independent work time.
In-class and out-of-class resource teachers for students with special needs will meet with the general education teacher separately to make modifications to the work being provided. The in-class and out-of-class resource teachers will then meet with the students over a video chat to provide clarification and additional instruction. These teachers will document all of these modifications in a Google document.
Students with special needs who opted for all virtual can still make an appointment for in-person related services, including counseling, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech services. Parents will be required to drop off and pick up their students at their designated meeting times.