School districts struggle with decision to return to class by end of school year

Schools across New Jersey are running out of time to get students back in the classroom.
Many districts are still weighing their options about how and when to return. But spring break could make their decisions much easier.
Freehold Regional High School is doing away with hybrid learning in a few weeks, meaning students will return to the classroom. Meanwhile, the Paterson School District is extending its remote learning until further notice.
“As much as I’m disappointed, I have to air on the side of caution,” says Paterson School Superintendent Eileen Shafer.
A few days ago, numbers seemed to be trending in the right direction for a return to in-person learning in Paterson. But post-spring break COVID-19 outbreaks in other Passaic County schools caused Paterson to extend remote learning for its 28,000 students.
“Restaurants are at 50% and people are getting the vaccine. So, I think because you get the vaccine, I think people think it’s OK to loosen up a little bit and now it not the time to loosen up,” Shafer says.
But things are looking different in Monmouth County, where a little over 60% of the students opted for full in-person learning beginning on April 21.
“We feel really, really confident that we can truly start to return more and more students to the building,” says Freehold Regional Superintendent Charles Sampson. “In-school transmission, our school has not had any. And when you build month after month and it’s obvious that it is safe, I would argue with one of the safest places to actually be.”
The district represents eight different communities and will end the hybrid option by April 21. Students will either be fully remote or fully in-person.
Even though it is nearing the end of the school year, being able to learn in person is crucial for both school districts.
“We’re not really looking at, ‘Oh, they’ll be in a week, two weeks, three weeks.’ We’re looking at ‘We need to get folks back,” says Shafer. “We really need to get comfortable with what the new normal is.”
“It’s having a sense of purpose. It’s integrated, working with other students. It’s the socialization piece to all of that,” says Sampson.
Both districts say that they are optimistic about the next school year. Monmouth County has invested $25 million in a new HVAC system. Paterson will be getting air purifiers in every classroom and air scrubbers in rooms without windows. Paterson is also reviewing whether to extend remote learning in early May.
Gov. Phil Murphy has said that every school district in the state should be back inside the classroom by September. Parents will have the option to keep kids home if they feel unsafe being in a classroom.