MILLBURN, NJ — In a second of a three-part series, TAPinto offers its readership an insight into what local area principals are envisioning as September draws near. Although there are so many moving parts that comprise a school district, it is the building leader – the principal – who is the “boots on the ground” person. It is the responsibility of the principal to oversee the day to day operations of the buildings, address parental and staff concerns, develop a budget, order supplies, evaluate teaching staff, ensure required fire, bus and lockdown drills are performed, know their students, oversee facility issues, intervene on issues regarding transportation, conduct staff meetings – these are just a few of their responsibilities - all of which takes place without a pandemic. Now factor in the uncertainty of COVID19 and its effects, area principals have been spending months continually drafting and revising numerous plans and scenarios as guidelines and directives change on a near daily basis.
Dr. Joanne Pollara is the principal of Kelly Elementary School a K-5 building in West Orange. The school is one of seven elementary schools in the district and has a population of 470 students, with one-third of the student population classified as they house many of the elementary self-contained classes. Dr. Pollara stated the biggest challenge for the elementary schools will be “helping the students transition back to a school that is functioning very differently than when they left. Personally, I believe that the social distancing will be quite challenging for all of us. Young children want to be close to their friends, teachers-- and even the principal. My biggest concern is for the students' and staff's wellbeing and safety. It's not about opening the schools as much as it is being able to keep them open!”
Every September when students return it is expected that there may be regression from content presented the previous school year and educators tend to do a review to establish a baseline early in September and then begin to present new curricula. However, the discussion for regression and recoupment will look different this year. According to Dr. Pollara: “Currently we are in discussions that will provide us the data we need to determine regression of skills and how to provide the support needed for recoupment. Personally, I have been looking into students who have had to be out of school for a long period of time, particularly the students who were living in areas devastated by hurricane Katrina. It seems that the research indicates that those students who were provided with the current year's curricula, knowing that the teacher would need to ‘fill in the gaps’ by doing a task analysis of what the students need to know in order to succeed on grade level standards, using criterion reference kinds of assessments to determine gaps in learning fared better than the ones who were provided ‘remediation’ prior to moving forward. We are also re-evaluating the delivery of instruction given the social distancing guidelines provided by the CDC for safety. We are also in discussions regarding how to provide effective, consistent instruction virtually for the students who opt out of returning to the school as well as those who are participating in a hybrid model.
One of our primary goals needs to be students' social and emotional learning. The students that left our buildings in March have been traumatized by a global health issue. Some have experienced the loss of a family member or friend. We will be incorporating social and emotional teaching and learning into our practice and will be relying on our support staff, School Counselor, Psychologists and Social Workers to help us with this endeavor. As a principal, I am also focusing on the well-being of our staff. They have also been through a trauma and need to feel confident and ready to return amidst this pandemic. This is also a discussion amongst the principals in the district”.
Dr. Pollara had been a Supervisor of Special Education in the district and before that a Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant and a special education teacher prior to becoming principal 11 years ago, so her knowledge of special education is unparalleled. She noted: “My concerns for the students with disabilities include the regression and recoupment of skills as this is one of our most vulnerable populations. We are trying to prioritize services for this population as well as our English Language Learners. As always, the relationships that we form with the students and their families are critical in serving our children. We need to know what the parents thought of their child's experience during the shutdown as well as their own. We need to know what worked and what did not. We need to know what is needed to support our students and their families. As always, once a plan is developed, communication and trust are keys to success. We are also aware that some of our students with special needs will not be able to wear facemasks due to tactile sensitivity, medical concerns, or behavioral challenges. Some students will have difficulty generating the skills needed for safe social distancing and mask wearing. Ultimately, we are committed to comply with students' IEPs. However, this could also mean that these students may require additional services and supports for the student to feel safe and confident in school. Data sets and goals and objectives need to be reviewed to determine the learning loss and the impact of the closure on the appropriateness of the goals. we are reviewing resources to find creative ways to assist our students in their transition back to this "new normal."
So, what will a school day look like in September given the current guidelines and regulations? Dr. Pollara offered the following introspect: “The school day is likely to look quite a bit different in the fall. Kelly Elementary's Pandemic Response Team is working on protocols for arrival, dismissal, moving in the hallways, health screenings as well as the number of students who can safely be in a classroom. some classes will need to be located so that the environment is large enough and the ventilation is acceptable. Student materials and belongings will need to be kept separate. At this time, we believe that students will remain in their classroom with the same teacher, although we may be able to continue to departmentalize grades 4 and 5 by streaming the lessons in from the content area teacher into the other sections. This is not finalized as of yet. Special area subjects and the delivery of Physical Education, Art and Music are still being worked out. At this time, we are planning for students to eat lunch in the classrooms and having the lunches brought to the classrooms. As far as class trips and assemblies it is not likely that there will be trips at the beginning of the school year. Assemblies might be considered if it could be held outside on the field. We had talked about dusting off those ‘sit-upons’ that we made for the school's renaming ceremony and being able to place them 6 feet apart. The PTA bought us a new speaker system so we could gather for a special occasion safely outdoors with very careful planning.
At this time, the state has not changed the requirements for fire and safety drills. We are required to have a fire drill by the end of the first full week of school, so we will comply with that. Students likely will be wearing their masks and we will prepare them for this. The lock down drills can begin at the end of September and by then we should have a clearer picture of how to conduct them.”
As the Millburn Public Schools prepare for September, Superintendent Dr. Christine Burton stated: “We are looking at the opportunity to work with students in smaller cohorts in order to assess their learning, and making sure they are all successful in the core subject areas of reading, writing and math. It is also important to have time to prepare them for the possibility of returning to all-virtual learning should health conditions change in our area”. She continued noting that regardless of the level or grades “The same challenge is at all levels: providing for the health and safety of our students and staff during this pandemic.”
As it pertains to after school activities Burton noted: “We will be following the guidance of the NJSIAA regarding athletics. Many of our clubs and other extra-curricular activities continued virtually in the spring, so we would anticipate they will be able to continue meeting online”.
Caesar Diliberto has been at West Essex Regional High School since 2008, beginning as an English teacher, becoming an assistant principal, and is now entering his sixth year as principal of the high school. The district is home to students from four surrounding towns - Roseland, Essex Fells, North Caldwell, and Fairfield - and has a student body of approximately 1,200. During the 2018-2019 school year 42.5% of the junior and senior classes were enrolled in at least one AP course, 18% of the student body was classified and 90% of the graduates enrolled in college.
Asked about the planning for the September, Diliberto stated: “We currently are running several committees to help determine exactly what the school day will look like. Feedback from surveys has driven our conversations and some great ideas have been exchanged”. When the semester does begin Diliberto addressed regression and recoupment by noting: “Teachers regularly assess all students at the beginning of every year to determine where students are. If more remediation is needed this year teachers will provide it and the school will continue to provide the academic supports that have traditionally existed. We also have a committee specifically charged with SEL and supports. That committee may introduce some new methods of support”.
A large part of the high school experience are the extra-curricular clubs and certainly sports all of which have been affected by the closure of the buildings and the ever-changing guidelines from the Department of Health and the CDC. Diliberto confirmed: “We will try to run all the clubs that we safely can in person, and those clubs can always switch to virtual if they must. For sports we will comply with all the State guidelines”.
Parents of classified students in particular are concerned that their children’s supports and programs. According to Diliberto: “The plan we will present to the public accommodates all students' needs. We are anxious to engage our entire population and provide the supports necessary to do so”.
Addressing the challenges and stakeholders apprehension as September draws near Diliberto confirmed: “There are a few logistical challenges, but we can handle that. My greatest hope is that students continue to feel welcome and invited. West Essex is home for them, just as it is home for me and over a hundred other educators. Home may look a little different. But in September I hope to welcome everyone home.”
The third and final of TAP’s series of planning for September will focus on an introspect from the leadership of a local teachers union and Board of Education presidents.