District to keep cohorts separate – with a catch for vaccinated seniors

Superintendent Erik Gundersen said that the district is able to give fully vaccinated seniors the option of attending school five days a week in person.


Stephen Schmidt

“We believe the benefits of having students all back seeing each other face to face… don’t outweigh the potential risks,” Gundersen explained.

Cohorts of students at Pascack Hills and Pascack Valley will not be merged for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, based on the recommendation of Superintendent Erik Gundersen and administrators. This means that the current hybrid rotation schedule will stay in place, with in-person students alternating the days they go to school and the days they learn from home depending on the cohort they are in.

At a special meeting held Thursday night, the Board of Education decided not to make a motion to override the superintendent’s recommendation, with BOE members sharing concerns about the increased risk of quarantine if cohorts were merged. With desks placed three feet apart in classrooms to allow for the increased capacity, unvaccinated students would have been more likely to need to quarantine if exposed to Covid-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines close contacts as those within six feet of a Covid-positive individual for 15 minutes or more.

Read next:  BOE adopts budget, approves resignation of superintendent

“We believe the benefits of having students all back seeing each other face to face… don’t outweigh the potential risks,” Gundersen explained. His sentiments were echoed by much of the BOE.

However, there is a catch: According to Gundersen, the district is able to give seniors who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 the option of attending school five days a week in person. “Senior parents should be receiving a correspondence from the district in the next few days” once details are worked out for tracking fully vaccinated individuals, Gundersen said at the meeting. He confirmed Friday in an email that Principal Tim Wieland will send a letter to parents of Hills seniors with more information.

The district’s move against merging cohorts for all students caps off a week of heightened discussion after the BOE and administration began to officially consider it.

At their Monday meeting, the BOE held a discussion about the topic, ultimately deciding to schedule a special meeting for Thursday and ask parents whether they would send their students into school five days a week if cohorts were merged.

On Tuesday, a form opened on Genesis for parents to indicate their preference. The form closed at 3 p.m. Wednesday. According to BOE President Tammy Mollinelli, 553 Hills students would have been in person every single day if cohorts were merged, 19 more than the current population of students attending school in person. 115 parents did not respond to the survey.

BOE member Kelly Blundy said the district “probably should have addressed [merging cohorts] a while ago… it is what it is.” She said her perspective on the issue evolved after she attended a Reopening Committee meeting on Tuesday, where the benefits and disadvantages of merging cohorts were discussed. Blundy said one student at the meeting changed their mind after they “initially stated they would like to merge cohorts.”

Read next:  BOE selects Debra Stephans to fill vacant Montvale seat

According to Blundy, another parent also changed their opinion due to the fear of their child missing end-of-year activities such as prom and graduation if they had to quarantine due to Covid-19 exposure. “Teachers and faculty seemed very divided,” Blundy noted.

Gundersen said that the district considered merging cohorts for 9th and 10th-grade students only, but he explained that there were concerns about large classes with students from both grades. BOE member Gini Varghese encouraged families to reach out to administrators if their child is struggling with their mental health due to learning from home.

”We’re desperate to have more students back in our buildings,” Gundersen acknowledged, saying the district intended to shift focus to preparing for a full return to in-person school this fall.