Heights school forced to close early after new COVID-19 cases

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Spring Lake Heights Elementary School. FILE PHOTO

SPRING LAKE HEIGHTS — Spring Lake Heights Elementary School was forced to shut down early before the beginning of Winter Break last week after three positive cases were announced last Wednesday.

“What took place last Wednesday was we had three positives, all related and we knew where the transmission took place; but they had been in school so the recommendation was to close for fourteen days,” Spring Lake Heights Superintendent John Spalthoff said.

Due to the planned winter break, however, the closure only affected five school days. 

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Regarding the possibility of a closure upon return from break on Jan. 4, Mr. Spalthoff said he hoped there wouldn’t be a need for one. 

If there is another uptick in cases, however, Mr. Spalthoff said, “The reality is the shutdown is going to be for two weeks. That’s the minimum of a shutdown.”

Spring Lake Heights parent James Carey said during the public comment portion of the meeting that he was concerned about future closures and educational discrepancies associated with the remote learning model.

Both Mr. Spalthoff and board member Randy Flaum said their goal was to create as little disruption as possible when switching students’ learning environments so they feel settled, comfortable and ready to learn.

“We are reflective in our practices and the decisions we make,” Mr. Spalthoff said of future policy decisions regarding COVID-19.

The board also reflected on its goals, COVID-19 policies and upcoming strategic plan at their final meeting of the year on Monday night. 

One of the district’s primary goals this year was to promote a positive school climate that supported the development of students’ emotional intelligence, valued their differences and made them feel safe. 

In fulfillment of this goal, the PTA and school counselor Dana Wilson reimagined the “Heights Superheroes Program,” which allows teachers to select a student who embodies the character trait of the month to be a superhero for the day.

Moreover, SLH was one of only four schools in Monmouth County to take the behavioral health pledge “Proud to Be Stigma Free.” Mr. Spalthoff hopes to create a culture where residents feel supported by their community and feel free to seek resources without stigma. 

The district also sought to enhance curriculum offerings through the infusion of stream activities and its redesigned media center, which was redesigned to facilitate collaboration in small groups. Due to social distancing guidelines, however, this goal had to be reinvisioned and will evolve as the year progresses. 

The board also strengthened the learning experience through integration with the outdoor learning environment. For example, the master gardener at food bank Fulfill in Neptune worked with students to harvest crops in the courtyard and taught them about sustainability. 

“The outdoor learning environment and the courtyard has been a godsend, quite frankly, with everything that’s been going on,” Mr. Spalthoff said. 

Another goal was to create and prepare plans to enable the school community to respond to a multitude of global and local events, including how it responds to COVID-19. 

“It’s been a crazy couple of months, as everybody knows. We have been constantly updating our plans and adjusting and keeping them as fluid as possible. We meet weekly with the Monmouth County Regional Health Commission and we are constantly updating the guidance from the Department of Health and the Department of Education,” Mr. Spalthoff said. 

BOE President James McCarthy said, “In addition to continuous review of policies … we supplemented pay stipends for virtual teachers, [social distance] hall monitors and lunch aides. We’ve also purchased a large amount of PPE equipment.”

Shifting its focus, the board also looked to the future as they briefly discussed three different programs –– and budgets –– that could be undertaken for a long range strategic plan which will be discussed at the January 2021 meeting and beyond. 

“It’s going to be a big undertaking, it’s going to take a lot of hours. But it’s an important step that we need to get to,” Mr. McCarthy said. “The strategic plan is basically a business plan for the school, but it’s not just a one-year business plan it’s potentially a 10-year plan for the school. It’s not just focused on money by any means, it’s focused on everything else that’s important to running the school well and the culture and community.”

The board plans to seek the input of all community stakeholders––including students, parents and staff––during the planning process. Mr. McCarthy believes that using outside consulting services may also help formalize the process and facilitate the desired change. 

“I think we are ready, at this point in time now, that we have everything from a physical aspect that we need to really refocus and say what is the vision and what is our long range plan here in Spring Lake Heights,” Mr. Spalthoff said. “How do we integrate everything that we should be in providing the best possible education for our students?”

Check out our other Spring Lake Heights stories, updated daily. And remember to pick up a copy of The Coast Star—on newsstands Thursday or online in our e-Edition.

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