When students return to classes in the Morris School District this fall, they’ll have to pass health tests, in addition to math and history exams.
Their temperatures will be checked. They’ll also be required to wear masks, just like their teachers.
In grades 6-12, at least, students will split their time between attending classes and following them live online, from home. Two days in, two days out — to ensure classrooms have ample space for six-foot social distancing.
That’s the plan for now, anyway.
Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast sketched out scenarios Monday during a three-hour meeting of the district school board, a virtual affair watched by about 300 people via Zoom.
It followed Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement that parents across New Jersey will have the option of choosing all-virtual instruction for their kids if they are worried about health risks from his directive to reopen schools.
Murphy promised more details later this week. In the meantime, Pendergrast and his staff are scrambling to finalize a game plan by Aug. 3, 2020, as mandated by the state. This high-wire act is especially precarious because state aid amounts won’t be announced until Aug. 25.
“We’re trying to make haste and move slowly at the same time,” Pendergrast said.
The superintendent opened the marathon session with a tribute to Georgia Congressman John Lewis, the Civil Rights pioneer who died Friday at age 80.
Lewis is an “American hero,” whose spirit of sacrifice is a model for the district as it strives to promote equality, said Board President Nancy Bangiola.
Staff members Lora Clark and Deb Engelfried told the board they are working with the school community on a district-wide anti-racism policy for the fall.
“We don’t want this to be a Band-Aid,” said Clark, a Morristown High graduate who serves as director of human relations and equity for the district.
‘THE SPREAD… IS HORRIFIC’
Transportation ranks high among the challenges for reopening the regional district’s 10 schools, shut down in March by the coronavirus pandemic.
It will cost about $1.5 million to add school buses, said board member Linda Murphy. More buses will carry fewer students, to maintain social distancing in transit.
Those buses must be disinfected between trips, which will affect the length of the school day. Elementary schools probably will open a half hour later than usual, Pendergrast said, while the school day may be compressed to four-and-a-half hours.
Lunch periods will be eliminated; students can take home “grab-and-go” lunches, the superintendent said.
Whether the district can continue busing pupils to after-school programs at the Morristown Neighborhood House and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church is uncertain.
Also up in the air is an expansion of the district’s Pre-K program. Some 500 children are scheduled to attend, but the state wants class sizes limited to 10 pupils, instead of 15 as planned by the district, Pendergrast said.
As for going all-virtual, a survey this month by the district found that 57 percent of families with children in grades 6-12 were interested. But only 42 percent of those surveyed with kids in the lower grades were open to the idea, according to the superintendent.
Generally, he said, the district has tried to minimize time spent online by young students.
Schedules will have some flexibility, but students may be asked to stick with their choices — all-virtual or a mix of virtual- and classroom instruction–for at least one marking period. More frequent changes could pose a scheduling nightmare.
“We’d never be able to run a district,” said Pendergrast, who oversees 1,000 employees serving 5,200 students from Morristown, Morris Township and (for high school) Morris Plains.
Students returning from coronavirus hot spots such as Florida and Texas won’t be allowed back to school unless they quarantine for 14 days, Pendergrast said.
“The spread throughout this country is horrific,” he said. “We said this was a global pandemic. It’s not. It’s a national one.”
Students won’t be allowed to congregate in hallways, Pendergrast said. Outdoor breaks will be scheduled to enable them to remove their masks, and outdoor hand-washing stations may be installed, Pendergrast said.
Hand sanitizers will be ubiquitous, and buses will carry extra masks for students who lose or forget their own. The district has purchased “hundreds of thousands” of masks, the superintendent said.
NO TOOTING YOUR OWN TRUMPET
Although the state has authorized most scholastic sports to resume in October, other extracurricular activities are being sorted out. Musical events carry increased risks of spreading the virus through the air, Pendergrast said.
“You can’t sit in a room and sing, or blow on a trumpet,” said the superintendent, who intends to host a series of virtual town halls next month.
One of them, he said in response to a parent’s question, will focus on how to accommodate special education students during the pandemic.
The breadth of viewer questions — 25 in all–underscored the enormity of the task facing school administrators.
Former teacher Chastity Milligan, a mother of four kids in district elementary schools, argued passionately for see-through face shields instead of masks, which hide facial expressions of students and teachers.
Pendergrast agreed shields could improve communication–but said state and local health officials insist masks are the safest option.
Craig Gilgallon of Morris Township said his family had a bad experience with virtual classes this spring. “We need in-school, in-person learning. Screens are not teachers,” he said.
Another parent, Gelena Santucci, said children in Europe have returned to school without virus outbreaks.
But Emily Wolper and Douglas Rahn each spoke in favor of virtual classes, explaining they have family members who are vulnerable to the disease. Some 1,300 kids were infected at indoor facilities in Texas this month, Rahn said.
“It still seems, to me, risky, and I would not like to see New Jersey be like Texas at this point,” he said. “We’ve come a long way. To go back just doesn’t make sense.”