By: Thomas E. Edmund, Jr.
NATIONAL PARK, N.J. – The re-opening of schools has been on the minds of many New Jersey residents, the surrounding areas and, in fact, across the country. The coronavirus has been a topic of great concern since the March shutdown and teachers are worried that health and safety of school staff and students could be put in grave danger.
Sherri-Ann Ripley, Handicapped Pre-School Teacher at Parkview Elementary School in Westville, has been teaching little ones, including me, for many years and she shared one of her biggest fears: As more people gather together in larger groups, the chance of the virus spreading becomes greater.
Teaching little children, Ripley sees it nearly impossible to maintain CDC guidelines within the classroom. She pointed out the fact that she recently read that the virus is like a teacher using glitter in the classroom, which gave her a good visual interpretation for just how quickly the virus can spread. A part of the Gateway Regional School District, Westville residents and school staff have felt that they have been given the chance to speak up. “As a Gateway team, the staff and parents were given the opportunity to complete a survey for the return to school. We also have ample opportunity to voice our concerns, while being respected for our opinions and decisions,” replied Ripley.
Ripley also said that she is prepared for both virtual and in-person teaching. Although she did not feel as confident in March as she “trudged through teaching virtually, I now feel confident that we are being supported to rise to the occasion. The most difficult part will be to prepare the classroom to meet the guidelines of social distancing. I have been told that we will have plexiglass shields for the desks to teach small groups, along with masks and shields for our own protection. I also have social stories ready for the class to introduce health and safety for our little ones and have used those already during virtual summer school.’’
Catherine Miller, Special Education Teacher at National Park Elementary School stated honestly her number one fear is being exposed to COVID and bringing it home to her family members, especially her parents who are 85 years old. As a teacher, she fears that she is not doing enough for the young students she teaches. She said, “This is an important time in a child’s development. Their brains are developing and ready to learn new concepts.’’
The Gateway Group asked for volunteers to be part of the re-opening committee. Miller joined this committee because she felt it was important to be in the know and give her opinion when needed. She acknowledged “very intelligent, professional staff members diligently working through the guidance requirements and recommendations provided by the New Jersey Department of Education.” For her and many others, this school year will have many challenges. The Gateway Group has emailed staff Professional Development (PD) coursework to complete over the summer or on the PD days at the start of the school year. These courses are designed to help teachers with hybrid and virtual learning.
“If I cannot have my students for a full week then two days a week will have to do, but only if it is medically safe for everyone. The teacher-student bond is a very important relationship. A child needs to feel comfortable and trust a teacher before learning can happen,” Miller maintained
Heather Pettit, a Middle School Mathematics at Stow Creek Elementary School in Bridgeton thought that her opinion about the re-opening of schools was a little different than others. For quite a while, she has been wanting to go back to school full time — five full days. Her district is quite small. “We have two buildings with about 150 students total K-8, so we are more unique than other districts that are much larger. I feel that because we are so small, we are able to have more control with sanitation and be able to limit the spread of COVID within our school community,’’ she clarified.
Pettit identified three fears associated with the situation, if a student or school staff member is exposed to or contracts COVID-19, the health and safety of all other individuals is put in jeopardy. There is no decisive action for schools to take in terms of proper sanitization efforts, unlike restaurants, financial institutions, and state/government buildings. There is a concern that the in-coming 5th and 6th grade students will not have the knowledge of the online programming that they will be required to use. If the school year starts at 100% virtual, it would most likely take a while to train students on how to properly use the online programming.
As of today, Pettit’s school is the only school in Cumberland County that will be in school full-time. If Governor Murphy decides New Jersey schools must begin at 100% virtual, it would be quite problematic. The funding of schools has also served as a great concern for her, all schools may not have enough funding to implement all of the mandated requirements. The CARES Act gave districts money to help with the 2019-2020 school year, but the upcoming school year will require a lot of funding as well and the schools had not budgeted for it. Pettit’s school lost thousands of dollars of funding with the “new funding model,” and with the added expense for the re-opening requirements, it is even more difficult for her small Cumberland County school to stay open.
She felt very lucky to have been a part of her district’s re-opening committee: “The new administrator is quite welcoming, and he was willing to listen and incorporate ideas that our staff “came to the table” with,” noted Pettit.
As she prepares for the upcoming school year, Pettit realized that she needs to evaluate how she will begin the first week or so of school. “I will need to focus much more on using the technology end rather than studying Mathematics like a “normal” school year. I will also need to plan out the transition to teaching hybrid or 100% virtual if our school has to change course immediately. I feel that a hybrid situation is much like attending school full-time with having the same or similar threats. Even though a hybrid situation has a shorter face-to-face time, you are around the same staff and students, therefore it is a similar or even same threat of being exposed to COVID. Unfortunately, hybrid scheduling is a must for many districts because of their size of student and staff population. In order to maintain the 6-foot or 3-foot (with barriers and mask) distance, schools have to go hybrid,’’ concluded Pettit.
Paula Trapuzzano, Special Education Teacher for Collingswood Public Schools has overall fears and concerns of getting infected with the virus and being out of school as an educator and not providing the proper education for her students. On that same note, she is afraid that the students could get infected by someone and then it would be a “ripple effect” to their friends and family who might in turn get infected as well and again, daily instruction for the students would be limited.
“I have been watching the news daily about the re-opening of schools in New Jersey so I know how to properly prepare for the re-opening of the school year and how to prepare my classes for hybrid instruction and/or full remote teaching. The district is giving the teachers four consecutive days of in-service days prior to the opening of the school year so the teachers know what to expect,’’ Trapuzzano disclosed. She has not yet been given the opportunity to provide her input about the re-opening but stated that she is confident that her fellow Collingwood teachers will be given the chance once Murphy makes new mandates for the upcoming 2020-21 academic year.
Trapuzzano likes the idea of hybrid learning in the schools, but she would truly like teaching from home completely remote until the pandemic is over. She is sure that many parents are going to opt their children out of the schools to protect them and their families from getting infected, but at the same time, Trapuzzano said that she is sure the parents want their children to be engaged in school instruction and to have a school routine with socialization and proper instruction by the teachers.
“This is a different world now for public and private schools for education and all parents need to be supportive of the teachers and the administration this school year because us teachers don’t even know how it’s going to pan out, but we will do our very best for our students. I believe that there will be a lot more interaction and communication between teachers and parents with concern with their child’s educational needs and wants. I’m all in for helping each and every one of my students achieve their educational goals within his or her Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) since I am a Special Education Teacher. My students are as equal to my priority as my and their safety to get through this new school year,’’ replied Trapuzzano.
Marygail Muller, Cooking Teacher at Gateway Regional High School in Woodbury Heights believes that it is nearly impossible for staff and students to remain safe while having to maintain social distancing. She noted that students will have to constantly be reminded about the safety measures, and as a teacher, she expressed how terrified about the uncertainty that still remains prevalent. Her questions about the spread of the virus and appropriate safety protocols still go unanswered, as September gets closer.
Muller’s words implied that the hybrid method of teaching can and will work especially for those students who enjoy school, have a love for the subject matter, who want to learn and are ready to come back to school. Students will have opportunities in the classroom as well as online: “Teachers are much more focused, and I believe the students will be eager and ready to be challenged. As a teacher, I accepted that challenge last spring and will continue to motivate my students with every opportunity.”
“I want my lessons student-centered and I want the lessons to challenge my students. Not just me but every teacher. People think that teachers are sitting back over the summer but that is not the case to those that I speak to. Everyone is focused on what they are going to do to meet and succeed in this challenge. My lessons were very successful in the spring and I hope to continue with the same dynamic focus. I have already met with other teachers in the same subject matter from various school districts throughout the state. I went over what worked for me. I was happy to share those lessons and pass them on. One was even a former student of mine who now teaches Family and Consumer Sciences,’’ reflected Muller.
As far as input for the return of the school year, Gateway Regional High School asked for volunteers to serve on a variety of committees to work, plan and organize for the return of school so that it could be safe for everyone. Those committees spent hours in their preparations, collaborating ideas and keeping safety first. Muller personally did not serve on those committees because in her spare time, she was focused on meal prepping for her 80+ year-old parents so that she could keep them out of the stores and out of grocery lines to keep them protected from the virus.
Muller distinguished Gateway Regional High School as it ‘“was successful in the spring with remote learning. The teachers had great support from every administrator and guidance counselor and child study team member. If a teacher was struggling with reaching out to a student for any reason, we added the student’s name to a document and someone else reached out giving teachers the necessary support to be successful. Our curriculum director was ahead on providing teachers a variety of platforms and teaching aides to make sure teachers had the necessary materials to successfully teach. They were all a true blessing.’’
Thomas E. Edmund, Jr., “TJ”, is a 2020 graduate of Gateway Regional High School in Woodbury Heights, NJ and a former intern at SNJToday.com. He will be attending Rowan College of Southern New Jersey to begin his quest to become a journalist.