More than 350 people tuned in to the Board of Education’s virtual meeting on Thursday night and they listened for nearly five hours to learn how Verona students will get an education in the months ahead.
A task force comprised of more than 150 school staff, parent and student volunteers, helped Superintendent Dr. Rui Dionisio and his administrators to create four plans for in-person and remote learning predicated on different outlooks for COVID-19, which they laid out in a 55-slide presentation. While it was delivered to the board, the BOE does vote on the plan. Instead, it is submitted to the county superintendent and the state Department of Education.
Dionisio, Director of Curriculum Charlie Miller and Director of Special Services Frank Mauriello answered many questions before the evening was over. But for every one answered, there were that many more raised. And absolutely nothing about school in the 2020-2021 school year will be as straightforward as it once was. While the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) has given the green light to athletic workouts and games, social distancing rules mean that many more buses would be needed to transport student athletes to away games, making them two to three times more expensive. With the district’s budget already stretched to the limit by COVID-19 safety and technology spending and another state cut to school budgets looming later this month, it’s hard to see where Verona would get the money for that kind of busing.
The four plans were laid out as stages, with stage 1 being all students learning remotely and stage 4 being all students back in school buildings. The two stages in between those bookends would combine in-person and remote learning and each would have far less of the current student population in a physical classroom: 50% at the elementary level and 25% in middle school and high school. And even when students are in person in stages 2 and 3, they will only be in a school building until 12:30 p.m. Then it’s home for lunch and more learning remotely. Dionisio said the district can’t have lunch in school buildings because that would mean students would have to take off their masks and, he said, “we are not ready to do that at this time.”
Stages 2 and 3 would both shorten instruction periods and, with students working all day on a computer, there would be less computer-based homework afterward. Miller conceded that Verona will not be able to get in all of the curriculum that it had planned for the year. Instead, he said, the focus will be on “core concepts.” And there would be no instrumental or vocal music inside a school building because these activities could make the virus airborne. Dionisio said that music instructors are working on alternatives, but did not provide details.
Several callers pressed for music and academic instruction to take place outside, but that seemed not likely to happen. Dionisio and Miller both noted that there are security risks with outside classes. In addition, the signal strength from the schools’ WiFi would not be sufficient for outside instruction and bad or cold weather days could curtail teaching.
Verona’s teacher’s union, the Verona Education Association (VEA), has not yet taken a position on the four-stage plan. VEA President Dr. Christopher Tamburro said Sunday that the union is waiting for “the full written plan to be submitted to the county superintendent with more specific details on health/safety items.”
The heads of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association and the New Jersey Education Association, have all called on Gov. Phil Murphy to only have remote instruction this fall. Murphy is, so far, allowing schools to make their own decisions on remote and in-person instruction, and the state has issued only guidance, not formal rules about quarantines and closings. That has raised concerns in districts state-wide that they could be held liable if a student or staff member contracts COVID-19.
Dionisio said that, if Verona were re-opening schools now, we would likely be at the stage 3 plan. But he emphasized at the meeting, and in his email to district families on Friday, that much could change between now and when Verona schools are slated to re-open on September 14.
“I would be remiss if I did not share that it is inconceivable that this public health matter will not worsen as time marches on,” he wrote in that email. “We all want to open our doors to our students and return to school as we once knew it. Disappointing as it may be, I grow more and more disillusioned with each passing day that school will return to normal anytime soon. We have not lost sight of the eventual likelihood of that possibility.”