TOMS RIVER, NJ — The youngest students in the Toms River Regional School District are set to be moved to hybrid instruction as of Oct. 5, school district officials said Wednesday night.
The plan, announced during the district's Board of Education meeting, would affect the district's pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first-graders, along with the students who are classified as LLD (learning and/or language disabilities), Superintendent David Healy said. In addition, plans are moving forward to shift the remainder of the district's 15,000 students to hybrid instruction on Nov. 9.
To move to hybrid instruction (and eventually, back to fully in-person instruction), the district will formally notify its staff on Thursday that those who sought accommodations for child care or medical concerns about family members will have to make arrangements to return to the classroom, to ensure it has enough staff in the buildings.
Staffing issues and a shortage of substitutes prompted the district's Aug. 13 decision to start the year fully remote in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
As of Wednesday, more than 421 Toms River staff members had requested accommodations. Finding enough substitute teachers has been an issue across New Jersey, Healy said. Even the Ocean Township School District's offer of $250 per day wasn't enough to fill its staffing issues, he said.
In Toms River, 172 staff members sought medical accommodations due to their own health or that of a family member, Assistant Superintendent Cara DiMeo said. Staff members with health issues will have to present documentation to continue to work remotely, and will have to meet the rules set out by the CARES Act. Staff members who sought accommodations due to family members will have to take a leave of absence if they don't want to return to the classroom.
Accommodations for child care will be in place through Oct. 30, DiMeo said. Anyone who still cannot resolve their child care issues will have to take a leave of absence.
Discussions about moving the district's youngest students to hybrid instruction sooner rather than later had been part of the board's committee meetings a week ago. But Healy said that plan was expanded to include first-graders because those students lost the final quarter of their kindergarten year to the pandemic shutdown.
"The feedback from teachers was we needed to get them back to in-person learning as quickly as possible," he said.
The accelerated move to get students back to in-person instruction has an added benefit: the district is able to rescind some of its planned layoffs, because the staff will be needed. The board had approved a reduction-in-force filing in late August that would have eliminated 240 jobs. Related: 240 Layoffs Set For Toms River Schools Due To Coronavirus Impact
"As we progress to Oct. 5 and beyond, we hope to have a full team onboard," Healy said.
Assistant Superintendent Richard Fastnacht said the hybrid will have students with last names A through K attending four-hour sessions in person on Mondays and Wednesdays, and having remote instruction on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Students with last names L through Z would attend in person Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Fridays would be remote for all students. There would be two hours of virtual support each afternoon.
Parents of pre-K, kindergarten, first-graders and LLD students will be asked to go on the parent portal and notify the district again whether they want fully remote learning or the hybrid instruction. Parents of older students will be asked to make the choice for their children not later than Oct. 1.
The shift to the hybrid will ease one issue parents had raised a week ago, of the younger students spending too much time in front of a screen.
DiMeo said the district also will offer a "parent academy," to help parents with the return to hybrid instruction. In addition, there are resources posted on the district's "TR Safe Return"webpage to help parents and students with technology questions and other issues.
Healy also took time to address rumors circulating about the district's remote start, by people who were "misinformed or uninformed," he said.
"Our goal, my goal, was to have a Sept. 8 (hybrid) opening," Healy said.
The district's administrative staff worked seven days a week through the summer to plan for a return to school. Plenty of personal protective equipment was ordered and is in hand, ready to be put to use right now.
Staffing was the issue, and it's not unique to Toms River, Healy said.
"When we made the decision to go remote, we were one of 24" districts in New Jersey to start the school year with remote instruction, he said, pushing back on a text message sent to voters by the Contessa-Londregan-Palmiere slate of school board candidates assailing the district for its remote start.
"That number is now 300 districts, and more are moving to remote learning each day. Nationally over 60 percent (of schools) are providing remote instruction," Healy said. "We are a large and complex district, the sixth largest in the state. We have the largest bus fleet, 2,700 full- and part-time staff, and in excess of 15,000 students. This is not a one-size-fits-all."
"If you have concerns about what we have done, log on to the committee meetings, go on our website, where there is information, or contact me directly," he said. "The key to our return back is to be fully staffed."
"This is an opening like no other school year," Healy said, and praised the administrative staff, whom he noted did not take a vacation during the summer while they created and then repeatedly revised the plans for the reopening. "They’ve done an incredible job despite more challenges than anyone could have expected."
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