SCOTCH PLAINS — Just days after parents made their choice between in-person or distance learning, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood school district applied to start the year virtually. Larger districts such as Elizabeth, Bayonne, Jersey City and Willingboro also have applied. Westfield’s application to the state remains a hybrid of in-person and online schooling, with families able to elect for an all remote option.
In June, Governor Phil Murphy issued a directive that all schools must have some form of in-person instruction start in September. On August 12, the governor reversed his prior decision, saying he would allow some schools to start remotely, if they cannot meet the requirements set forth by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE). The NJDOE checklist, updated earlier this month, has 58 checkpoints in 12 categories. Among the categories are Reopening Plan, Digital Divide, Transportation, Contact Tracing, Classrooms (including the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning or HVAC systems) and Personal Protective Equipment.
In a letter to the community on August 14, Scotch Plains-Fanwood Superintendent Joan Mast, Ed.D., wrote, “out of an abundance of caution, our district is updating our Restart Plan to reflect All Virtual Learning as our first option.” The superintendent said school districts had received further guidance from the New Jersey Department of Health on August 13 and it was this information which prompted the decision. She wrote, “The guidelines provide clarity in regards to the important role that ventilation systems play in containing the spread of the virus. The overall district ventilation system is an area of concern which needs and requires professional assessment and targeted remediation.”
Superintendent Mast further explained that the schools’ HVAC systems cannot accept the recommended MERV-13 filters, and therefore need to be updated. She said that while the district schools’ HVAC systems are adequate for an average school year, “this is not a typical school year.”
Grainger, an industrial and maintenance supply company, posted an article regarding filters on the “Know How” section of the company website in February. “An air filter’s minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating measures how effectively the filter stops dust and other contaminants from passing through the filter and into the air stream,” it said. The higher the rating number, the more particles the filter will catch. “Clean Rooms” in laboratories and hospital operating rooms typically use MERV-17 or higher. Ratings under 16 currently are used in residential settings, offices and schools, according to the Grainger article.
Superintendent Mast said that the district learned a great deal about “At Home Learning” in the Spring, and that starting the year virtually will allow the district to create “the best pedagogical model for delivering online instruction.” The district also will delay the start of the school year until Monday, September 14, to allow more professional development for teachers.
There will be a virtual information session for parents and guardians on Monday, August 24, with Superintendent Mast and the other school administrators.
The letter recognized the hardship this may put on a family’s schedule, and the superintendent said the district is working with local child-care organizations such as the YMCA and JCC to help support families during the school year.