Sparta reopens its schools full-time with combined cohorts

Sparta. For some members of the school community, the reopening is coming too soon, and for others, it didn’t happen soon enough.

Sparta /
| 05 Mar 2021 | 12:45

Sparta school administrators are planning a return to school full-time, with combined cohorts, by the end of March.

On Feb. 23 the acting superintendent, Patrick McQueeney, said the plan involves bringing pre-K through grade 12 into the school for full-day instruction in the virtual and hybrid models. Cohorts A and B will attend on alternate weeks.

Then on March 29, all grades will have full-day instruction for in-person and virtual classes, which will include combined cohorts. The 100 percent virtual option will be available for the remainder of the school year.

Covid-19 cases have been steadily dropping since peaking earlier in the year. Sussex County is now designated “yellow,” which means a “moderate” risk of Covid-19 exposure.

School board member Robert Zywicki said a watershed moment was when the guidance changed to say the district can remain open with more than two unrelated quarantines if they are properly contact-traced. “Every one of us wants the kids to be back in school,” he said. “It took a tremendous amount of time and shifts in the sand and multiple changes in the guidance.”

Extracurricular clubs

McQueeney also announced a plan to bring extracurricular clubs back to the high school, beginning Monday.

“We’re very excited we can enrich and round out our students’ experience as we begin to open our schools,” he said.

While many parents were thankful for the planned reopening, others had questions. Parent Heather Donnelly said she is happy about the reopening but asked why parents weren’t notified the district was working on it, or getting clear-cut answers during the process. “Not everything has to be a secret, and not everything has to be a rumor,” Donnelly said.

Andrew Venizelos, executive vice president of the Student Council, said students are excited about returning to school. They’re planning a big “spirit week” starting March 29, with competition between grades and different outfits. “We want to make it a more fun way to bring the school back together,” he said.

Fear of exposure

Not everyone was excited.

Sparta Middle School teacher Cara Johnson brought her daughter, Emma, who said she wanted to return to school but felt the two weeks between the start of full-day cohorts and full-day combined cohorts wasn’t enough time.

When her father had Covid-19, her family was quarantined for 24 days, she said, adding that she is concerned about exposure. “I don’t think we’re equipped yet to have everyone come in at once,” Emma said.

Another parent, Lauren Collier, said she didn’t know whether plexiglass dividers were necessary or worth the price. She was concerned about the smallest students at Alpine Elementary School having to carry them around.

McQueeney said Alpine students won’t carry the dividers around, but students at Helen Morgan School will because they move between classes. He said other mitigating factors need to be in place. “We know by bringing students back, we’re not going to be able to guarantee six feet at all times,” he said. “If we don’t provide (dividers), we can’t come back full in-person.”

Sue Soy, president of the Sparta Education Association, reminded the school board that it was up to them to ensure the health and safety of all students and staff. “Sparta educators will be there because our duty is to provide the best possible education despite these daunting circumstances,” she said.

Others questioned why it took so long for Sparta to get this far when other neighboring districts have already returned to school.

“We’re not Andover, we’re not Lafayette, we’re not Pope John,” Zywicki said. “We have 4,000 individuals across five buildings. We’re much larger.”

“Every one of us wants the kids to be back in school. It took a tremendous amount of time and shifts in the sand and multiple changes in the guidance.” Robert Zywicki