In late January, Verona’s public schools struck a deal with Vanguard Medical Group to vaccinate teachers and staff against COVID-19. But the plan fell apart last month when the state failed to come through with the necessary doses. Now, maybe, teachers will have their shot: Gov. Phil Murphy announced this morning that, as of March 15, pre-K through grade 12 staff will be eligible for the vaccine. As a result, Superintendent Dr. Rui Dionisio is once again in contact with Vanguard and hopeful that this time the plan will come to fruition.
The possibility of teacher vaccinations wasn’t the only good news that Verona’s schools have gotten. At last week’s Board of Education meeting, Dr. Dionisio said that Verona has been awarded $683,000 from the federal government’s pandemic relief program. While some of the funds were earmarked for specific purposes–$38,000 for learning programs and $45,000 for mental health support–the bulk of the money could be used at the school district’s discretion. Dr. Dionisio said that one of the possible uses under consideration is further enhancements of the schools’ ventilation systems. Verona also stands to get about $180,000 more in state aid this year, in part because the state budget has been less disrupted by COVID-19 than early forecasts had indicated.
Facilitating vaccinations for those teachers and staff who wish to get them is one piece of the complex puzzle to getting all Verona students back in their classrooms at the same time. Verona has let families choose in-person or remote learning since the start of the 2020-2021 school year, but some schools have had more opt in than others. At last week’s BOE meeting, the four elementary school principals said that 85% of their parents had opted for in-person. But the percentage drops to 70% at H.B. Whitehorne Middle School and 50% at Verona High School, where, despite the indication that half of all families want their students in classrooms, only 30% of VHS students are actually reporting for in-person school.
The virus is playing out very differently at each of Verona’s six schools. As of Monday, March 1, only 13 people are in quarantine across all four elementary schools and there was only one positive COVID-19 case, which the school district said was someone who had either not been in school to infect others or was fully remote. The schools’ COVID dashboard and announcements do not disclose whether those affected are students, teachers or other staff.
By contrast, there are 27 people in quarantine at HBW and 56 at VHS. One person at HBW is listed as having tested positive and had been in the school, while VHS had 4 positives among people in school and three who had not been in school. Both VHS basketball teams had to end their seasons early last week because so many players had to be in quarantine.
Last week’s BOE meeting also offered a fascinating glimpse of how Verona’s youngest learners have been adapting to the pandemic. The four elementary school principals talked about giving their students visual clues on staying six feet apart and holding snack times outside in all but the coldest weather so that there could be breaks from desks and masks. Brookdale and Forest Avenue schools even got tents so that students could have a covered outdoor space on rainy days. The elementary schools gave parents the option of pulling students out of in-person learning at any time and set specific “on-ramp days” when students who were home could come back into school. “We were going to do whatever it took to get kids into the building quickly if their parents decided to keep them home, whether it was a health concern at home, or a comfort level,” said F.N. Brown Principal Dr. Anthony Lanzo.
At last week’s meeting, as at previous meetings, Dr. Dionisio addressed many of the ideas that have been advanced by parents to get the schools back to their pre-pandemic operating style. He noted that there are no easy comparisons to make with other districts, because of differences in enrollment and budgets, and specifically addressed the assertion that Verona could get more students back in classrooms by surrounding desks in Plexiglass. “The health department has been very clear with us: Adding Plexiglass will not alter the six feet requirement from their standpoint,” he said.
“Every district has unique challenges and constraints,” Dr. Dionisio added. “We all, I believe, want the same thing. We will want kids and staff to be in school more often. We want to return back to normal as soon as possible. I know I want that, I know our teachers want that, I know the board wants that, and I certainly know the kids and the parents want that too. So what we’re going to continue to work through these challenges and through these issues. Our schools have been open, perhaps not as ideally, as some people would want. That’s not to say that we don’t have opportunities, we’ll we’ll be able to take a look and see what we can continue to evolve our schedule throughout the rest of this year and into next year.”