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The Lawrence Township Public Schools announced its plan for the rest of 2020 in October, with the goal of returning most students to school buildings by the end of November. But not everyone is happy with the details.

A group of parents who have selected the all-remote learning option for their children say the new plan shortchanges the students when it comes to the amount of time they would get with a live teacher. The district disagrees, saying the parents are conflating seat time with instruction time. The two parties spent the last few weeks of October attempting to hammer out a compromise.

School instruction had been entirely remote for LTPS students since the start of the school year Sept. 8. Early results of a survey conducted by the district in October showed that about 60 percent of students intend to switch to the hybrid model with some in-person instruction once offered, with 40 percent staying all-remote. Those numbers are fairly even across schools, LTPS superintendent Ross Kasun said.

The first batch of students—self-contained special education students at Ben Franklin Elementary School and Lawrenceville Elementary School—resumed in-person instruction Oct. 12. Kindergarten, integrated pre-K and the remaining self-contained special education students in grades K-6 resumed two weeks later, Oct. 26.

On Nov. 9, all grade 1-3 students resume, with the remaining students in grades 4-12 starting Monday, Nov. 30.

Hybrid learning will be on an every-other-day A/B schedule, Kasun said, with in-person instruction days lasting four hours. The district’s current plan places students whose last name begins with A-L in cohort A, and those whose last name begins with L-Z will be in cohort B. Students in the A cohort will attend school in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays, with the B cohort in-person on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The cohorts only apply to those students opting to do hybrid learning.

All students will be remote on Fridays until January. Kasun said this allows time for planning and professional development for staff.

The district said those students who have selected to learn only via remote instruction this school year must remain remote for as long as the district remains in its current hybrid schedule. In a Oct. 23 letter to the community, Kasun said beginning in January, the district will establish periods during which parents can change their children from hybrid to remote or vice versa.

Meanwhile, more than 150 parents have formed a coalition called Parents for an Equitable Education Plan (PEEP) to protest. They say the plan provides remote-only children at the elementary and intermediate schools with significantly less live instruction than their hybrid peers, as well as less access to teacher support and no live instruction in the morning. They also say that the remote-only schedule—as well as the schedules for hybrid students on their remote days—does not meet the state requirement for an official school day. The State of New Jersey’s reopening document defined a school day, whether in-person or remote, as “at least four hours of active instruction to students by an appropriately certified teacher.”

The PEEP coalition, in a Oct. 20 statement, made several suggestions they said will even the playing field, including equal instruction time and teacher support for remote-only and hybrid students and a set schedule with live instruction for all students in the morning.

Kasun said he believes the district already has met those demands, either in the initial plan or in alterations he made after parents expressed concerns. The district added 15 minutes in the morning, after the daily homeroom “morning meeting,” for teachers to work directly with remote students in order to set expectations for the day. Teachers at LIS will have office hours to help remote students who might need guidance. At the elementary schools, a help desk will be set up so staff members who have breaks in their schedules can assist remote students. Elementary school teachers are different, Kasun said, in that they don’t have blocks in their schedule where they can leave their classrooms.

Kasun said he planned to meet with the parents Oct. 28, after this issue went to press, to let them know what work is being done and to see if the district has missed anything.

“Part of the reason for this town hall meeting is to let them know that we’ve heard them, that we’ve made some tweaks and some changes to make things more equal and equitable,” Kasun said. “To let them know that things will change.”

In an Oct. 23 statement, PEEP commended Kasun for his willingness to work with the group, but said there’s still work to be done.

“We remain concerned about the impact of afternoon-only live instruction for our K-6 students,” said Michael Giglio, a parent of students at Ben Franklin Elementary School and Lawrence Intermediate. “We look forward to a dialogue in the near future to clarify the difference between instructional contact times provided by Dr. Kasun today and the times that were sent out the previous week. We encourage our parent supporters to continue providing feedback not only on the length of instruction provided to our children, but also the quality of that instruction time.”

PEEP’s biggest sticking point—that direct teacher instruction for remote K-6 students is happening in the afternoon—is the one thing Kasun said is “a complete impossibility to fix.”

The remote-only schedule provides students with live instruction by a teacher Monday through Thursday 1:45 to 3:30 p.m. Students K-5 will have 45 minutes of live instruction on Fridays, with 6th grade students receiving 90 minutes of live instruction on Fridays, in an effort to equalize the amount of time children have in front of their teachers.

This catch-up attempts to offset the fact that while the hybrid K-6 students are in a classroom with a teacher for four hours in the morning twice a week. Meanwhile, the remote students spend their mornings doing what’s dubbed as “asynchronous work.” Essentially independent study, it could be activities like worksheets or reading, or lessons using Dreambox and iReady, two virtual learning tools purchased by the district for this school year. Kasun said Dreambox and iReady use artificial intelligence to customize learning programs for each student, and can react to provide instruction and strategies if a student struggles or increase the difficulty if the content appears to be too easy for the child.

PEEP explicitly called out the programs, saying in a statement that “Dreambox, iReady and other game-based virtual instruction is not an adequate replacement for time with a teacher, in-person or otherwise.”

“I really feel that many of our families right now are having the wrong conversation,” Kasun said. “Nobody’s talking about quality instruction, quality programs. They’re talking about seat time. Just because a kid is in front of a teacher doesn’t mean it’s instructional time.”

The actual amount of instruction time will vary from teacher-to-teacher and grade-by-grade, Kasun said. At the elementary level, for example, teachers will use the live instructional time to work with one small group of children at a time while the rest of the class does asynchronous work.

The superintendent added that the schedule is just a blueprint and teachers have the freedom to include remote students when doing in-person demonstrations, if they so wish. But he insisted that the “touch time” with a teacher will be equal, whether a student is in-person or remote.

“I’ll take some ownership,” Kasun said. “We haven’t done a great job of explaining exactly what that schedule will look like. It’s harder to do that. Usually, you get parents together in a PTO meeting and go through it. So we’re starting to go through that now, and now that some of the parents are actually seeing the schedule, they’re understanding that it is somewhat equal, especially K-3. It is definitely equitable.”

PEEP parents pointed to plans in surrounding Mercer County districts as proof that Lawrence could do better in their minds. The districts provide live morning instruction to all cohorts, as well minute-to-minute identical scheduling through various measures, they said. The districts accomplished this by creating full remote-only homerooms, dedicating teachers to the remote cohort and streaming live instruction for the off-day and full-remote cohorts. They also pointed to research that showed children learn better in the morning than they do in the afternoon.

Kasun said LTPS considered live streaming and remote-only homerooms for K-6, but ultimately decided against it.

“We have found by watching other districts that it is a disaster,” Kasun said. “Those kids feel alienated, they’re not part of anything.”

If integrating all students was the goal of the LTPS plan though, PEEP parents said the district has failed. The entire effort started, they said, because they feel like the district has treated their children differently solely because of their decision to keep them out of school buildings this year.

“To be clear, we are not promoting any other district’s specific plan, nor are we asking for the live-streamed instruction in the original reopening plan,” said Kelly Cleland, a parent at LIS and LMS. “Rather, we implore Dr. Kasun to treat the full-remote students as an equal cohort and not an afterthought. I was a member of the district reopening committee, and this is not the reopening plan we discussed. We were not consulted on this new plan, and it is grossly unfair to the students and families who have specific health and safety reasons for choosing remote learning.”

There’s plenty of room for change, Kasun said, and the district will depend on the feedback of staff, students and parents as the year goes on. And there’s no promise the proposed plan will ever be reality, as the dates for the start of hybrid instruction and the entire model itself could be scrapped should COVID-19 cases spike or the pandemic worsen locally.

“I think it is a really well-thought-out model,” Kasun said. “It’s going to need some tweaking along the way. And I hope we get to it. I hope we get to try it.”

As of Oct. 23, the district had reported just one case of COVID-19 among staff or students since the school year began—a district employee who was not inside any school buildings tested positive in mid-October. Kasun said in an Oct. 16 statement that a school bus used by the employee had been thoroughly cleaned. At the time, self-contained special education students at Ben Franklin Elementary School and Lawrenceville Elementary School were the only children receiving in-person instruction.