WEST ORANGE, NJ — Following last week's deadline for a survey that gave parents the option to opt out of hybrid schooling, West Orange Public Schools (WOPS) Superintendent Dr. Scott Cascone revealed on Monday that 2,964 students, including 1,130 West Orange High School students, have decided to stay virtual.
There are approximately 4,000 students slated to begin in-person instruction on Nov. 9.
This reduction of students on campus could enable the district to “offer more time on-site,” Cascone said. He added that even though the cohorts have been finalized for in-person instruction, parents are still free to change their mind at any time during the school year.
With two weeks left until WOPS will reopen, parents and teachers voiced their opinion at this week's West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting.
Teachers, like Edison teacher Molly Eisen, thought that the change to hybrid will disrupt the momentum of learning and students will waste time acclimating to a new schedule.
Others, like Redwood teacher Jennifer Paull, were worried about a “twindemic”—the overlapping of the flu season with the expected increased cases of COVID-19—and urged Cascone and the WOBOE to reopen schools in January.
Lisa Rodino, a Washington teacher who was among those afflicted by the virus after being in extended contact with a colleague, explained that she had felt safe, since she had volunteered to teach in her classroom since September, but despite following safety protocols including social distancing, daily temperature checks and wearing a mask, she still contracted the coronavirus and also passed it to her husband, who has asthma.
“I am so lucky to be alive,” she said.
Rodino also said that she was informed that she was exposed to the coronavirus on Sept. 30 and immediately quarantined. On Oct. 2, her symptoms hit and even though three weeks have passed, she and her husband are still recovering from COVID.
“I know that it is so imperative to get back to school, [but] we can’t risk it,” she said.
Monica Nieves, West Orange resident and teacher in another Essex County district, said she understands the fear that some teachers have since she “felt the same way.” She continued, “but whether we do it now or in January, we’re going to have to face those fears and we’re going to have to learn this new model.”
Nieves, who has been teaching 275 children in person since September, explained that she sees her students every other day, while following all safety protocols.
“I’m not going to say it’s easy,” she said, “but it’s worthwhile and I think it’s what has to happen for the sake of our kids.”
Some parents, including Carol Anne Holland, reminded other speakers that students will only be in school for a couple times per month, while staying mainly virtual.
“cor,” said West Orange parent Aaron Kesselman, who explained that he and his wife both work full time, while trying to attend to their daughter. “And if we don’t do that now, then when?”
In response to recurring claims that special education students, who started in-person schooling on Oct. 14, were used as “guinea pigs,” Cascone said that those comments were “irresponsible.”
He added that teachers and the general community were kept informed about the need to bring in autistic students in advance of Nov. 9 and he and Director of Special Services Kristen Gogerty-Fitzgerald met with teachers to address concerns and ensure that they had the equipment they needed and the necessary upgrades to their HVAC or the installation of an air purification device.
“So, to suggest a) that we were using them as ‘guinea pigs’ and b) that we did not provide adequate support in advance of that, I just think is disingenuous and necessitated some counterpoints,” he said.
In terms of ventilation, Cascone said that the installation of bipolar ionization units has been completed at Edison Middle School, Gregory Elementary School, Mt. Pleasant Elementary, Kelly Elementary, Redwood Elementary, Roosevelt Middle School, St. Cloud Elementary and Washington Elementary.
Work is still being done at the WOHS, which is 60 percent complete, Liberty Middle School, which is 25 percent complete, and Hazel Elementary, which is 25 percent complete. Cascone also added that mobile purification units have been deployed to spaces that need them.
Even though parents wanted to compare WOPS to other districts like South Orange-Maplewood, which has postponed reopening school until Jan. 19, WOBOE President Ken Alper said that West Orange cannot compare to other districts because the administration has been deliberate to follow the “best scientific advice” there is.
“I have confidence in the approach that West Orange is taking here,” Alper said, adding that the Board and Dr. Cascone have to answer to the will and the needs of the entire West Orange community and while many people spoke at Monday’s meeting, they “can’t possibly represent every perspective in town.”
In terms of rising cases in New Jersey, Cascone mentioned that the district will keep any eye on the State Department of Health website, which currently labels Northeast region as having a moderate level of risk, according to the COVID-19 Regional Risk Matrix, meaning that full in-person or hybrid instruction are still permissible. If the level is elevated in the future, then the district will consult the local department of health for advice on how to change gears.
During the meeting, a series of retirements were announced including Business Administrator and Board Secretary John Calavano after six years of being in the district. Others include WOHS Family and Consumer Science teacher Nancy Donnelly after 25 years, Kelly Speech Language Specialist Susan Dyer after 13 years, Mt. Pleasant Music teacher after 32 years, Buildings and Grounds Operations Foreman Michael Hanley after 21.5 years, and Building and Grounds Administrative Assistant Kathy McCormick after 12.5 years.
The WOBOE will have a special virtual meeting on Nov. 4 at 6 p.m. and the next virtual public meeting will be on Nov. 16. at 7:30 p.m.