As the start of a new school year looms, Straus News wondered what routines and equipment from last year would remain and what would be jettisoned after more than a year of COVID cautions, precautions and restrictions? We conferred with area schools to find out and hear how they were spending their Federal stimulus money.
While all school districts have plans in place, information from state governments, Departments of Health, Education and federal recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may alter their plans. Here’s a look at we learned:
The New York Department of Health directed state school districts to require masks.
The Goshen, N.Y., School District had previously announced that it would like to see choice for students and staff on whether or not masks are to be worn while inside schools, but the district said it would comply with whatever the mandate is from the New York State Department of Health.
New Jersey Governor Murphy said remote learning will not be an option for the upcoming school year and that masks are required.
West Milford, N.J., school officials also added that masks must be worn by all passengers on buses, regardless of vaccination status.
Delaware Valley, Pa., school officials say they will follow state guidelines. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf reaffirmed that no state mandates regarding masks or vaccines are planned for Pennsylvania school districts.
The governor has said the decision rests with school districts. “That’s where it ought to rest,” the governor added. “I don’t think there’s any need for the state to step into this.”
Wolf said the state has encouraged schools to follow CDC guidelines. Those guidelines recommend universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status.
The requirement regarding social distancing was reduced last year from six to three feet; this remains the same for coming school year.
Chester: Students on busses will be encouraged to sit in family groups and at least 3 feet apart from other students as much as possible. The district also saw an increase in the number of parents driving their children to school.
Goshen: On busses it is impossible for any significant social distancing to occur. The district will do everything possible to minimize risks and density on busses. In classrooms, the district has been working on a three-foot distance from student to student.
West Milford: Parent conferences for K-5 will be in person, or virtual at parents’ request; 6-12 will be virtual (in-person at parents’ request).
Warwick Valley: According to the district’s website, it will maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet or use some type of a physical barrier. Lunch will be delivered to classrooms for grade 5-6; grades 7-8 and 9-12 will have multiple pickup locations (at lunch line, which will have barriers). No shared tables, salad bars or other self-service areas. For grades K-8 the district will be grouping students by the same class/group of students and teacher (into a cohort) so each team functions independently as much as possible. Where feasible, this will also be done in grades 9-12.
Cleaning and air handling
Many schools switched to higher rated MERV-13 air filters and reported cleaning and inspecting them more often. But for older school buildings the filters put more of a strain on the motors.
Districts said they also would also introduce more fresh air through open windows in classrooms and open hatches on school buses.
Chester: The older building’s air handling system is not capable of using MERV 13 filters at this time. Higher rated filters apparently above MERV 8 put more strain on the equipment. The school district said “We are in the process of developing plans for upgrading the air handling systems at Chester Elementary School but this will take time for planning and installation.”
Goshen: The district is working with its architects on upgrades to air handlers and air filtration systems. They will be making a presentation to the Board of Education on Aug. 30.
Monroe-Woodbury: The district will use federal funds for facilities improvements to address the limitations of the district’s HVAC systems such as enhancing air filtration in school buildings and enhancing the effectiveness and reliability of those systems.
Delaware Valley: “We will continue to do rigorous cleaning, increased ventilation and social distancing the best we can based on the number of kids and the size of the rooms.”
Speaking for many educators, Sparta School Superintendent Matthew Beck said: “If we don’t use the progress pertaining to instructional methods we made during the pandemic to our advantage, then we are missing an opportunity. We will continue to grow our use of student-centered and technology-driven instruction.”
Goshen: Devices will be available to all students in the school building as needed.
West Milford: 1:1 Chromebooks and Google Classroom will continue.
Delaware Valley: The district will continue to grow its use of student-centered and technology-driven instruction and will be using Chromebooks in a 1:1 fashion again this year.
Chester: Some of the district’s federal stimulus funds will be used for computer network infrastructure upgrades and for expanding the District’s Chromebook program to grades K through 7, so that all students in grades K-12 will have their own dedicated Chromebooks. Some will go toward the purchase of new Chromebooks for students who had not been issued them previously.
Monroe-Woodbury: Federal funds have been and will continue to be used for technology initiatives that provide technology devices such as a Chromebook, iPad or laptop, for every student in the district. Investments in technology and network infrastructure will be made to provide the capacity and bandwidth to handle increased network traffic and data streaming needed for new technology-oriented modes of instruction.
Warwick Valley: Access to technology will become 1 to 1 for students K-12 and hi-speed Internet access will be provided when needed. The district has also put outdoor wireless on all its buildings so community members may go to the surrounding areas of each school and have high speed Internet access.
In grades 2-12 students will have district-owned devices that are assigned to them and will be handed out in late August. Students will use the device at home and should bring it with them when attending school in person.
What’s being (mostly) jettisoned
Remote/Hybrid Learning: Schools are gearing up to return to five-day, in-person learning. Most experts agree that in-school learning is vastly superior to remote learning. That said, many school districts found virtual learning effective and useful for students who cannot attend in person, for staff that may be in quarantine, and for parent-teacher conferences.
Chester: “The return to full day in person learning is critical to the intellectual, academic, social, physical and emotional well-being of all of our students,” said Chester Superintendent Denis Petrilak.
“There were a number of useful and creative innovations that came out of the pandemic,” Petrilak added. “In addition to new remote learning possibilities, online meetings (Google Meet, Zoom, etc.) created new opportunities for communication for faculty, staff, and parents. Remote training sessions and online parent-teacher conferencing allow people to participate in important meetings without the time and expense associated with travel and minimizing disruptions to work for working parents.”
Goshen: The school district said it does not believe, at this time, that there is any need to return to the hybrid model. Remote learning will likely still be necessary for issues of quarantine.
Delaware Valley: School Superintendent John Bell said the district would not be doing synchronous learning from home via Zoom like they did last year. “That was a one-year stop-gap measure that ended last June.”
What’s new: Addressing education gaps
Chester: The district introduced a K- 8 summer school program. The district also will add a new school psychologist, social worker and new academic intervention services teachers.
Monroe-Woodbury: “Additional instructional and counseling staff will be hired to provide academic and social/emotional support to students,” according to public relations specialist Carole Spendley. That includes new psychologist and guidance positions and additional support for special education program.
The district also plans for a summer school program for each of the next two to three years to address academic learning loss that may have occurred as a result of the pandemic and the social and emotional needs of students through academic oriented enrichment activities. These programs will be full day, address a multitude of academic areas including art and music and be free and open to all students, in all grades.
Sparta: “We ran a summer learning program this summer and plan to extend our before - and after -school learning programs,” said School Superintendent Matthew Beck.
How is the district spending its federal stimulus money?
Keeping students safe is a primary concern of all school districts. As with last year, all districts said they plan to do rigorous cleaning and increase air flow and where possible, upgrade air handling systems. Spending took place in a variety of areas, including purchasing PPE and cleaning supplies.
Many schools purchased Chromebooks or other computers to facilitate virtual learning. Some already had them.
Schools used money to hire additional staff, for teaching or emotional support. Some established programs to help students make up for instructional loss.
Goshen: The district utilized the first round of relief funds for necessary PPE, Superintendent Kurtis Kotes said. The second rounds were used for the Gladiator Gains Program this summer; a large portion has been earmarked for upgrades to air handlers and air filtration systems in the school buildings.”
Sparta: “The vast majority of our federal stimulus money has been dedicated to learning acceleration and social-emotional support for our students,” School Superintendent Matthew Beck said “We ran a summer learning program this summer and plan to extend our before and after school learning programs.”
Warwick Valley: According to information on its website, the Warwick Valley School District intends to prioritize spending on non-recurring expenses in the following areas: Safely returning students to in-person instruction; maximizing in-person instruction time; operating schools and meeting the needs of students; purchasing educational technology; addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on students, including the impacts of interrupted instruction and learning loss; implementing evidence-based strategies to meet students’ social, emotional, mental health and academic needs; and offering evidence-based summer school, afterschool and other extended learning and enrichment programs.
Delaware Valley: The school district reported they are implementing instructional and counseling staff hires.
Speaking for many educators, Chester School Superintendent Denis Petrilak said: “The federal funds which allow our students to return to school safely, and will enable them to resume classes, extracurricular activities and all of the other valuable social interactions that we all have been missing so dearly.”