Since March, Hunterdon Central has been closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The school, along with the rest of New Jersey, transitioned to online learning for the remainder of the year. Now, as the unprecedented 2019-20 school year comes to a close, there are many questions still to be answered about what next year may look like. In addition, seniors, who won’t get a traditional graduation this spring, are wondering how they will be celebrated.
Hunterdon Central Journalism students were given the opportunity to interview our superintendent, Dr. Jeffrey Moore, on May 21, via Zoom. Dr. Moore discussed the different ideas the school has discussed for a virtual graduation, some of the challenges the school has faced this spring, as well as potential plans for the upcoming school year this fall.
Q: We now know that our graduation is going to be digital. What was the planning process like for trying to figure out the best way to celebrate our seniors?
Dr. Moore: The planning process started with us figuring out what we needed to preserve from a traditional graduation. The first thing is the important rituals that happen at every graduation. They might not feel important to everybody who’s there, but there are certain traditions of the school that everybody who’s ever graduated from Hunterdon Central has gone through.
The second thing is trying to preserve these important moments that you would usually find at a graduation. Tossing your cap in the air and receiving your diploma on stage are moments that are very important to you and the people you’ve brought there. We’ve been worried about losing those moments. With the weekly restrictions that we face, I think we can still have these moments, but they might need to be spread across different events. Some of them might happen in a virtual ceremony, or if we have an opportunity to do something different later in the summer if restrictions ease. The virtual ceremony is coming together because we know we have the opportunity to do that right now.
As soon as we found out that we were allowed to do a drive through parade celebration, we started working with the Raritan Township Police Department to plan that. We’re working throughout the community with people like the Chamber of Commerce to see how we can bring businesses into this planning so that they can highlight and celebrate graduates. With all the restrictions involved, it doesn’t come down to one event. But again, it’s all geared towards making sure that we can preserve those traditions and making sure that you all have a moment that lets you celebrate and be proud of the work that you’ve done at Hunterdon Central.
Q: What precautions might be implemented next school year?
Dr. Moore: One thing that’s happening in New Jersey is groups of superintendents, like myself, are coming together with the Department of Education to start really getting into the details and understanding the challenges of reopening in the fall. We’re marching through a list of things that we have to consider. It’s not just things like unit lunch and what classrooms look like, but also things like visitors coming to the school. How do we ensure that there is access to a bathroom at all our entrances so the visitor can wash their hands before they come into the school? What does a classroom look like if we have to do six feet of social distancing between students? What happens if somebody comes up positive for COVID-19 in the early months of school or at any point in the year? These are questions that we’re all trying to wrestle with. There are frustrations in that because we all want really specific guidelines and rules. But scientifically, there’s a lot that people don’t know about this virus.
The bottom line is ultimately that your health and the safety and health of the community around us is going to guide all of our planning. Some of the details are still up in the air that I can’t really speak to yet. But I can tell you that some of it is going to look different. Some of it could look different to the degree that we might still be engaged in some online learning. Some of it could just be as simple as precautions that we take when we’re here. It all depends on where we are with the virus, and it’s spread by August or so as well.
Q: Are there any plans to shift the curriculum in case we have to stay electronic at the beginning of next year?
Dr. Moore: The work we have to do on our curriculum and our teaching materials is significant. Some of the things that you’ve talked to us about is that you’re appreciating the opportunity to work at your own pace. But it’s difficult for a lot of people to manage their time and structure that and stay on task. So if we’re in a situation like this again, or maybe even if we’re looking at what we do here every day under a normal kind of school day, we want to preserve the flexibility that we had during this time. We know that we probably need to do more to help you structure your time and give you help on how to pace your work and stay focused. In a normal circumstance, every other day you go to a class and it’s scheduled out for you. But if we give more flexibility, then we need to start being there in a different way to help you structure all that work. I think we also have to really look at our curriculum and really look at our classes and say, alright, what’s the most important information and skills here that students need to come out of this class having mastered? If we find ourselves in this situation again, we can make sure that we’re focusing on the most important stuff. This has been really difficult, but I have to say, the teachers, counselors, all the students… it’s amazing what you’ve done. I know it’s been difficult for a lot of people but it’s just amazing how everybody’s listening.
Q: How do you think the school schedule might change next year if we are still online, and how might it change if we go back to school?
Dr. Moore: The delayed opening schedule that we’ve been using for online instruction has had its pros and cons. If we are virtual next year, there are things we have to reconsider in terms of the schedule. If we are back in school, what we need to do to our schedule depends on the kind of restrictions that are in place. As an example, if we’re under social distancing guidelines and everybody has to stay six feet apart, you have to think about the school day and what that means. Passing time, unit lunch, gym, locker rooms, and many other things would have to change. All of that ties into our bell schedule in one way or another. You also need to look at our classrooms. Right now, our classrooms can fit anywhere between 25 and 30 desks. If you have to put six feet between desks, that number drops dramatically. That opens up even larger conversations about reduced capacity. Now we’re talking about different solutions, like shifting our bell schedule or doing days on and days off for different groups of people. It’s all really, really challenging because it strikes out some of the most fundamental parts of a school day.
Q: What has been your biggest takeaway from everything that’s been happening?
Dr. Moore: There are moments in this when things went on pause. And that was really inconvenient and really distressing to a lot of people. We missed a lot of things. And a lot of things have to be done differently in ways that aren’t satisfying. But, when you go on pause, you also get to take a breath and stop and look around you. You get another chance to think about what’s important to you and who’s important to you. You get to think about how you can spend time with them and take care of each other. That’s the thing that I hope comes out of this. I hope we all slow down a little bit. I hope we don’t jump right back into the frantic fill up your schedule every day thing that we got used to before this happened. I hope we come out of this and try to figure out how to slow down at school. How do we retain this flexibility that we’ve found in this? How do we hold on to this ability to let you work at your own pace more? Those are things that I think we can take away from this whole situation.
Editor’s Note: Since this interview, changes to state restrictions due to the pandemic along with other events have caused a change in plans. Dr. Moore noted the following:
We have since announced that we’ll do in-person graduation ceremonies on July 8 and 9 (shifted, with 150 students per) and an informal gathering for graduates on July 14. This all requires Governor Murphy to raise the outdoor gathering limit to 500. As of June 18, the limit is150.
Since this interview, I have presented to our Board of Education on three possible scenarios for a return to school in the fall, ranging from a full-time return to school with some public health considerations, to remaining on remote instructions. We are also rostering a reopening committee (including staff, community members, and also students).
Since this interview, we have identified priorities for our summer and ongoing curriculum work, both in response to closure and in response to other concerns in our community. Those are: building relationships in a potentially virtual environment; diagnosing student strengths and weaknesses more deliberately; addressing inequities in performance and placement, and providing for more examination of social justice and equity issues with students across the entire program.