MILLBURN, NJ — It has now been four months since New Jersey schools were ordered to close their buildings immediately and provide instruction through remote learning due to the pandemic.  Many districts had at best one or two days to present professional development to staff onsite prior to the building’s closing.  Initially the thought was perhaps the school would be closed for two weeks, then that hopeful date came and went and ultimately schools were shut down for the remainder of the school year.

It is the custom during the summer months for school administrators to work earnestly to plan for the upcoming school year, creating class schedules, writing new curricula for new courses to be offered, interviewing candidates for positions, tackling long awaited capital projects to name just a few of the activities taking place in what is the “normal” summer.

The campuses are busy as recreation departments house their camps in the school buildings, summer enrichment programs offering courses in the performing and visual arts are usually maxed to capacity, summer extended programs are in full swing for classified students, sports teams, clinics and band practices are taking place.  Senior administrators plan for that special week or two with their families to take some time off always ensuring that there is someone overseeing the district and all while staying in contact with their offices.  But none of that has happened during the summer of 2020.

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Governor Murphy’s administration announced on June 27th that school buildings will be open in September with social distancing protocols in place and a requirement to have in-person instruction presented at least partially.  The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) issued parameters in “The Road Back:  Restart and Recovery Plan for Education” which allows for the individual districts to develop their plans during the month of July through a process requiring input from the stakeholders, inclusive of administrators, health officers, union leadership, staff members and parents.  

District plans must be presented to the NJDOE no later than July 31st and announced to their communities no later than four weeks before school begins.  As recently as July 20th again new directives came from Governor Murphy now stating that districts may offer a “virtual option only” for students whose parents do not wish to send them back to the buildings.  To make the situation even more dire is the fact that the Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet has resigned effective July 31st to become the president of Kean University.  It would not be unreasonable to assume that given there are six weeks left before Labor Day directives and circumstances can very easily change again.

In a three part series TAPinto will provide to its readership feedback from the superintendents, board of education presidents, teacher union leadership and  principals’ perspectives from four districts in Essex County who will discuss their process, plans, apprehensions and goals as they craft their plans for September.   Caldwell-West Caldwell, Millburn, West Essex and West Orange school districts personnel have all been striving to draft a plan that will best serve their individual communities needs taking into account fiscal, personnel, capital, curriculum, transportation and health and safety constraints and considerations.

Millburn

Millburn Township Public Schools has approximately 5,000 students housed in six elementary schools, one middle and one high school.  Superintendent Dr. Christine Burton described the process that has been taking place and it is based upon their objective that:  “All of our return-to-school planning is designed to follow our mission, ‘To provide for the health and safety of all staff and students to return to the Millburn Township Schools.’

Millburn’s Return to School Taskforce, made up of district stakeholders, is coordinating with the local Department of Health and the Board of Education to formulate the details for operations, health, wellness, safety, facilities, instruction, technology and all of the processes and procedures that will need to be in alignment with state guidelines for the successful restart of our schools.

The Taskforce is in the process of finalizing draft plans for schedules that will be released to the public next week.”

Dr. Burton when questioned as to what the biggest challenges for the upcoming school year with the information currently available responded:  “The biggest challenge is making sure we are providing for the health and safety of all staff and students to return to the Millburn Township Schools.  There will be accommodations for teachers/staff who are unable to return to in-school teaching for health reasons.”

Responding to questions about the delivery of instruction Burton did confirm “we will provide for families whose students need to have a fully virtual experience due to health conditions.”  As it pertains to providing instruction and related services to classified students she noted: “The Special Services Department will be providing their students with the requirements of each child’s Individual Education Plan.”

Burton responded when asked what would benefit the students the best academically and socially:  “We do believe there are some benefits to transitioning back to school with smaller cohorts of students, as it will allow our teachers to assess where students are academically, and be able to work with them in smaller groupings.  It will also allow us to take address the social and emotional needs of the children, and staff.”  As it relates to the possibility of hiring more staff Burton noted: “We are still in the process of putting schedules together, so we do not yet know if we will need additional staffing.”

Caldwell-West Caldwell

The district is a K-12 district with five elementary schools, one middle and one high school and has a student population of approximately 2,600 students.  Dr. James Heinegg, Superintendent of Schools stated that the process preparing for the Fall is such that: “At this point we are working on a daily basis.  We have been surveying parents and staff members, holding meetings to review plans, gathering parent input through video conferences and emails, working with colleagues from other districts to review guidelines and compare notes, etc.”

 When asked what the biggest challenge is in preparing for September Heinegg responded: “To my mind, the biggest challenge is simply the uncertainty of what the status of COVID-19 will be in September.  Under normal circumstances, it is a considerable amount of work in the summer to prepare and plan for the upcoming school year.  Under these circumstances we have now, not knowing whether things will continue to improve, or be about the same as they are now, etc., we need to plan for multiple scenarios”.

Parents and staff members throughout New Jersey are trying to figure out what will work best for their families and for their children as September draws closer.   Questions have arisen such as will a student be allowed to only receive remote learning and what if a staff member is not able or comfortable with returning onsite, how will the district be able to accommodate those circumstances?  Heinegg addressed those issues by stating: “We are going to do what we can to make things work for all of our families.  Exactly what we will be able to arrange will depend somewhat on what our staff availability is.  Of course, the same uncertainty we are facing with respect to our planning is facing our families and staff members as they try to make decisions about their own situations.  We will be doing our best to make accommodations for our staff as well. The Department of Labor has provided guidance on the different scenarios for employees.  We are working with our staff members to try to sort through that guidance and to determine how to proceed”.

Dr. Heinegg when asked what would benefit the students best academically and socially replied:  “What we are struggling with--as are all other districts--is the realization that, while Remote Learning certainly has its downsides, there are also concerns about in-person learning under social distancing protocols.  The bottom line is that most positive educational experiences in school take place with students and teachers in close proximity, so even the in-person models we are looking at are problematic”.

West Essex

West Essex Regional School District unlike most other local districts is home to a middle school for students in grades 7-8 and a high school only, and there are approximately 1,700 students in the district.  The district is a receiving district for Roseland, Essex Fells, Fairfield, and North Caldwell districts so coordinating with the four sending districts is paramount on a good day.  But now the need for working in tandem with the sending districts is crucial, particularly if the older students may need to care for younger siblings.

Superintendent Damion Macioci noted that maintaining adequate social distancing protocols as one of the biggest challenges for his district commenting that: “We have a large number of faculty and staff members, combined with a high student enrollment”.  West Essex administrators have been working on various options for September, but the guidelines are changing literally daily.  When asked what the district had planned in the event that a parent does not wish to send their child to the building the superintendent stated: “The Governor announced yesterday a virtual option for families.  The NJDOE is releasing guidance later this week”.  The districts are required, at this time, to provide instruction on site however it is up to the parent if they chose to send their child to the campus.

Another area of great concern is the staff and their ability and desire to return to the school buildings.  Some staff members may have a medical condition themselves or a family member at home may have a greater risk of being susceptible to contracting COVID-19 and have no comfort level in being able to return at this time.  Macioci addressed this concern by stating: “Each staff member will be addressed on a case by case basis. The NJDOE guidance does include general health and safety guidelines”.   Macioci provided the following information:

Reasonable accommodations should be provided for individuals that the Centers for Disease Control identifies as having a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including older adults (aged 65 years and older) and individuals with disabilities or serious underlying medical conditions, which may include: 

- Chronic lung disease or asthma (moderate to severe) 

- Serious heart conditions 

- Immunocompromised 

- Severe obesity (body mass index, or BMI, of 40 or higher) 

- Diabetes 

- Chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis 

- Liver disease 

West Orange

The district is home to approximately 6,600 students and has one preschool building, seven elementary buildings, three middle schools and one high school.  Superintendent J. Scott Cascone provided extensive and detailed responses for this article.  Beginning with the process to prepare for September Cascone  explained:  “The process began prior to the end of the school year with the convening of various focus groups including administration, certificated staff, and the district's Ed Tech Team which was principally responsible for developing our e-learning platform. In between the end of the school year and the receipt of the road back manual, a district School Opening Think Tank was created consisting of primarily administrative staff and teacher association leadership.

Since the receipt of the school opening manual, "The Road Back" the think tank has been unpacking the manual and teasing out key considerations and points to help inform the drafting of an overall model which is feasible within both logistic and financial constraints and at the same time "checks" the boxes which we know are important to our parents and students. This week subcommittees of elementary, secondary principals, and curricular supervisors are going to drill down further to draft out rough instructional day schedules.

Throughout this time, we have also been working with the transportation office to understand transportation limitations and establishing busing cohorts. We have put out a staff survey to ascertain staff perception and viewpoints on coming back in September including identifying staff members who would be precluded from reporting to work on site with students due to pre-existing medical conditions. This is a critical focus right now as we seek to understand how many teachers, we could not count on for onsite instruction with students.

A survey was also administered to parents to gather data on what percentage of parents would educate their students virtually, homeschool, or those who would participate in our hybrid model.  The survey also sought to understand which parents who were eligible for busing would continue to send their students on the bus, as well as collecting demographic information as to the grades and specific programs that their children may be in including special education, ESL, basic skills etc.

Next week the school base Pandemic Response Teams and Reopening Committees inclusive of parents stakeholders will begin making sense of the overall model and plan for their schools. Further, laser-focus subcommittees on such topics as cleaning and sanitization, health and safety protocol, curriculum instruction and assessment, technology, social emotional well-being will convene and begin to develop specific protocols and procedures. An additional subcommittee will be professional learning which will facilitate training opportunities over the summer as well as at the onset of the school year to prepare teachers, students, and families to effectively operate within this new normal.”

Regarding the need to hire additional staff Cascone noted: “At this juncture we do not foresee adding any additional staff, although the budget for the 2020-2021 school year did include an additional nurse for the high school. That being said, we did successfully file for the Covid Cares ESSER grant through which we received $600,000, a portion of that grant has been reserved specifically for specialized equipment and custodial overtime.”

When asked what he believes would be the optimum plan while accommodating social distancing protocols that would benefit the students academically and socially Dr. Cascone stated:  “This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer, because that which would be in the best interest of students it’s not something that we are able to provide within the social distance guidelines, as well as the health and safety protocol, cleaning. That being said, I believe the model which we’ve developed represents the best marriage of servicing the whole child while operating within the fiscal and logistic constraints, as well as a model which is able to flex and pivot to either a more liberal or conservative approach depending upon the change in the public health conditions. That is, offering a much enhanced, "supercharged" virtual experience, offering weekly on-site time with a critical focus not only on follow up, academic support but also experiences and activities which will tend to the social emotional well-being and whole child, and providing all day childcare and virtual learning labs for parents for whom there are no other childcare options. This model would also enable us to bring children in both proactively and reactively on the individual or small group level as we saw fit, conduct all IEP meetings, CST evaluations, college counseling appointments, extracurricular activities and athletics, if we are authorized to proceed into a competitive season.”

As the summer continues it would not be unreasonable to expect more and different directives to come from the Governor’s office as it relates to school opening in September and our educators and administrators will continue to plan for September with the information that is presented to them.  TAPinto will continue to provide insight from local Board of Education presidents, union leadership and principals as the districts move forward with their plans for the new school year.