By Hayley Slusser
(EDISON, N.J.) As New Jersey continues to relax COVID-19 guidelines, school administrators in Edison are beginning to map out the district’s plans for next year as well as life beyond the pandemic.
Back in March, Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) said remote learning would not be an option for New Jersey schools this upcoming year. Superintendent of Edison Township Public Schools Dr. Bernard F. Bragen Jr. said this decision is important for ensuring all students have the same access to quality education.
“If children had the option to stay remote, that means our teachers would have to do hybrid (classes) because a portion of our students would select to stay at home,” he said. “The hybrid is very difficult for our teaching staff and it’s not sustainable in the long run, because (they are) trying to interact with the people on the screen and the people in the class at the same time, which is very difficult.”
Edison Township, the fifth-largest school district in the state with approximately 17,000 students in 19 schools, only has around 32% of children attending school in-person at the moment, with the rest opting for virtual instruction. Current guidelines from the Department of Health call for three to six feet of social distancing in schools operating in-person.
Bragen said the district has been able to meet these standards at its current capacity, but if Edison schools were to return to fully in-person instruction in September as Murphy has called for, it would be nearly impossible to uphold state social distancing guidelines.
“The J.P. Stevens (High School) cafeteria is going to have 600 people in it. You can’t do that during the lunch period and be six feet apart. We don’t have the facilities to do that,” he said. “And it’s not just J.P. — it’s some of our other buildings too.”
Bragen said in order to fully reopen, social distancing requirements would have to be loosened by September. Despite the conflicting guidelines currently in place, no state official has contacted him to discuss how social distancing will impact bigger school districts, or what Edison can do to ensure it can reopen while still adhering to state requirements.
In addition to social distancing, masks are still required in all New Jersey schools, except in cases of extreme heat. The COVID-19 vaccine will not be required for students or teachers returning to school, but any Edison teacher who wanted to get vaccinated could do so for free through Hackensack Meridian Health. Currently, children as young as 12 can also receive the Pfizer vaccine.
Although Edison schools now have some students in-person full-time, the district seemed to go back and forth throughout the 2020-2021 school year. In September, Edison began school fully remote due to challenges with planning hybrid schedules and transportation, Bragen said. Schools eventually transitioned to a hybrid format in October, where some students were fully online and some were in person for a half-day. There were some individual school closures, but the entire district ended up going back to complete virtual learning two more times, in December and April, due to increasing COVID-19 cases.
As superintendent — a position he took over in December 2019, just months before the pandemic began — Bragen has to base his decisions on input from a variety of voices in the community: students, teachers, parents, administrators, Board of Education members, and taxpayers.
He said conflicting guidelines from government entities, such as the Department of Health, the Department of Education, and the governor’s office, have made planning more challenging for himself and other administrators since people can point to whichever guidance better supports their own position.
“(If there was) a unified voice from the governor’s office, it would have been easier for us to implement (plans) with fidelity across the board,” he said.
Even amid these difficulties, Bragen said finding common ground among the stakeholders is part of his job, which he feels the district has been largely successful in doing.
He said he is looking forward to returning to some sense of normalcy so officials can continue working on long-term projects to improve Edison’s schools. To address the district’s issue with overcrowding, officials are working on building an addition at Lincoln Elementary School and purchasing property for more expansions or to build new schools.
Edison will also finally implement its Early College Program this September, enabling freshmen to work toward their high school diploma and an associate’s degree from Middlesex College. Additionally, officials are working toward achieving Middle States Association accreditation for all of its schools in order to highlight the district’s academic excellence and help create a seven-year strategic plan, Bragen said. Both high schools have already received this accreditation.
While he still makes it a point to visit the schools regularly, Bragen said he is looking forward to being more present in the classroom this upcoming year and working closely with both students and teachers.
“The pandemic forced you to deal with the stuff that was in your immediate face,” he said. “I’d like to get back to work and do the long-range planning, take care of the day-to-day as we normally would, but then also start planning for our growth, start planning for renovations, start planning for improving our educational programs, and getting back to dealing with the normal things.”