Will Middletown Schools Suddenly Go All Virtual?

MIDDLETOWN, NJ — That’s the million-dollar question in Middletown right now, as parents are anxiously waiting to see what will be revealed in an emergency Board of Education meeting Wednesday night.

But three people with good knowledge of Middletown public schools said they do not expect to hear any last-minute “go virtual” announcements — although nothing can be said for certain.

“That would be very unlikely; I would be surprised,” said Middletown BOE president Pamela Rogers. “Staffing is not a problem at the elementary and middle school level. As of Friday, we were concerned about the high school. I know we had to go outside of our usual area to try and hire more subs, and as of today (Tuesday) I know they are still making phone calls and trying to get subs.”

As Patch reported last week, it was revealed that the Middletown school district is facing a severe and unprecedented staffing shortage, with as many as 100 teachers and staff who have requested leave, mostly due to coronavirus. That number has likely gone up since then.

At its 7 p.m. meeting Wednesday, Sept. 9 new Middletown schools superintendent Mary Ellen Walker (she was just promoted to the job in August, having previously been assistant superintendent) will update the Board and the public on where the district is in regards to staffing and hiring substitutes.

It is ultimately Walker who would make the decision to make Middletown schools all virtual or stick with its hybrid model. She did not return Patch’s request for comment for this article.

Rogers, like BOE vice president Robin Stella, is up for re-election this November, and they are being challenged, among other candidates, by the Putting Children First slate of Jackie Tobacco, Frank Capone and Harmony Barry Heffernan, running on a platform of fully reopening schools.

Like Rogers, Tobacco also seemed confident the district would stick with its hybrid model, with the first day of school Sept. 14.

“I heard they are definitely reopening,” Tobacco told Patch. “Parents are speculating they are going virtual, but I don’t think so. I had my reentry meeting today and touched base with all my son’s teachers and they seem very prepared for both in-person and virtual learning.”

Middletown Township Committeeman Tony Fiore also said he was “cautiously optimistic.”

“Look, I don’t think any parent would be surprised if they reversed course,” said Fiore, who is not on the Board of Education but has children in the district. “And yes, it would be awful. I think there’s a lot of concern that they will pull the plug, but I don’t think they’re going to. I don’t think they would pull back at this late hour. People are cautiously optimistic that this will go through.”

Should Walker decide Middletown will go all virtual, she would inform the Board of Education in executive session Wednesday night, and then announce it afterwards to the public. The Board does not have to vote to approve any plans to “go virtual.”

As of last week, Middletown schools had about 100 teacher vacancies to fill: Forty of them are certified teaching positions, and another 60 are non-certificated staff, such as paraprofessionals, secretaries and maintenance. The teachers and staff requested paid leave for reasons ranging from their own health concerns about COVID to them being unable to find childcare for their own children.

Under the federal CARES Act, teachers can request a leave, and be paid two thirds of their salary for up to 12 weeks. The majority of the teachers, more than 70, requested accommodations, meaning they asked to teach but to do so virtually, from their homes. The 70+ teachers who made this request did so because of childcare issues in their own homes.

“So we put a paraprofessional or a substitute in the classroom (with the students), and the teacher teaches virtually from their computer at home,” said Rogers. “Right now cases are quite low in Monmouth County, so if we can go a couple of weeks and we don’t have any issues, maybe teachers will see that. If we follow all the guidelines to stop the spread, I’m really hopeful that will encourage teachers.”

But Fiore pointed out that local Catholic and private schools, such as St. Mary’s, Oak Hill Academy and St. Leo the Great have kids back in class, five days a week.

“Somehow they are making it work,” he said. “Now, I am sure there are some teachers with health conditions or new babies at home and it’s completely acceptable they are concerned about COVID. But childcare as an issue? Many first responders, government workers and healthcare workers have childcare issues. If your situation is you have a childcare issue, well, so do a lot of Americans. It’s very hard right now.”

Last week, Middletown put out a plea for substitutes to apply; the district pays substitute teachers about $100 a day.

Initial Patch report: Middletown BOE Scrambling To Hire Subs As Teachers Request Leave (Sept. 3)

The district will give a full report of where it is at with staffing at the upcoming Middletown Township Board of Education Wednesday, September 9 at 6:00 p.m. (public at approximately 7:00 p.m.)

This is a special voting meeting. The meeting will be conducted virtually using the Zoom conferencing platform.

Please follow the link, or the U.S. dial-in phone option, to attend.

YouTube: If you do not wish to participate via the Zoom platform, the meeting will be streamed live on the district YouTube channel.

Those attending the meeting via Zoom will have the opportunity to comment during the public portion of the meeting by requesting to participate by utilizing the “Raise Hand” feature on their Zoom attendee dashboard. Those viewing the YouTube stream may have their comments or questions read into the record by first entering a request to participate into the live chat field, followed by their comment.

Additionally, members of the public may email their comments to boardmeeting@middletownk12.org . If you choose to enter your comment via YouTube or email, please include your name and home address.

Formal Action May Be Taken

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This article originally appeared on the Middletown Patch

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