WEST ORANGE, NJ – To the disappointment of over 1,000 community members who recently signed a petition to delay the reopening of schools, West Orange Schools Superintendent Dr. Scott Cascone decided last Friday to continue with phase 2 of reopening schools as planned on Monday, Jan. 25.
This comes after the second town hall meeting held last week to encourage discussion about the upcoming reopening of schools.
A panel of experts in public health, medicine and mental health were asked to present their perspective on the advisability of implementing a hybrid model after being fully remote for nearly a year.
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Jared Scherz, living through the COVID-19 pandemic is like living in a “war zone,” because of the perceived threat of being infected.
“So, everything we experienced now becomes alarming,” he said, adding that being in a continual state of “cautious guardedness” and “agitation” caused suffering in people who have never experienced living through a pandemic.
Dr. Jill Chasse, a pediatrician who also has a background in psychology, added that even though children are struggling to cope with a lack of socialization and increased risk of depression and suicide, parents of elementary-aged children also may present with “perinatal mood and anxiety issues” because of a lack of support.
In terms of school safety, Dr. Joshua Josephs, a hospitalist and epidemiologist, mentioned that children “do not seem to readily get COVID” and children who do acquire it have a low risk of experiencing a bad outcome including hospitalization or passing away from the virus.
On the other hand, risk increases for staff members who are over the age 50, but Josephs added that with the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) including a mask, a face shield, gloves and frequently using hand sanitizer it reduces the risk of contracting COVID “somewhat on the order of tenfold.”
Josephs also referenced a study from the CDC in which it says that children in grades K through 8 “don’t seem to generate epidemics” as compared to universities where the number of cases goes up by 50 percent.
District physician Dr. Michael Kelly added that since teachers “are not going into a hospital” it is much better for teachers to enter a “controlled environment.”
During public comment Edison Middle School teacher Bonnie Pomeroy asked the panel for assurance that she, her colleagues, and students will not die when they return to school.
“None of us are going to able to assure that even once everyone gets vaccinated that nobody’s going to die from COVID,” Dr. Damali Campbell, who is also a West Orange parent, said. “That’s just not a possibility.”
Josephs added that even if everyone is vaccinated, the vaccine does not have a 100 percent efficacy rate.
West Orange parent Lauryn Weinshank, who works at a local hospital as a social worker, commented that there needs to be more focus on community spread because the cases she encountered in her place of work arose because of what coworkers were doing outside of work. She credits everyone wearing masks to there not being more spread while at work.
Chasse agreed and suggested that everyone wear non-valved, multi-layered cloth masks that can be washed regularly instead of purchasing N95 masks.
Despite the experts saying the opposite, West Orange parent Dr. Janice Johnson Dias still believes that “opening the [West Orange] High School is a fundamentally bad idea.”
She continued that she found the presentation and interpretation of the data “troublesome,” because many conclusions were drawn from generalizations made with “limited data or small sample sizes.”
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Johnson Dias also added that the decision to reopen schools would negatively impact the Black and brown populations in the district.
In response, Cascone said that students are being given the opportunity to come back to the school buildings because “many families and students are struggling at home and need the support of being in schools,” but there is no obligation to send children back into the buildings.
He also added that the district is taking an “extremely conservative” approach to reopening schools by only allowing 25 percent of students into the buildings per day and maintaining six feet of distance between desks in the classroom.
Chasse added that the studies that have been published so far have small sample sizes because the researchers are looking the impact of “community burden,” or how disease spreads within a community.
“What we’ve learned throughout this pandemic is that the closure of our schools, the inability of students to be in our schools has impacted students disproportionately from an academic standpoint,” Cascone said.
West Orange parent Rachel Goodman asked the panel to address the metrics that “actually demonstrate the danger of reopening,” because even though young people may be asymptomatic or survive COVID, some college athletes might have long-term heart damage or other long-term effects from contracting the disease.
Josephs responded that, reopening schools, as with everything in life is a “risk/benefit discussion.”
“There’s a chance you could be hit by a car driving to school, the bus could flip over, those are known risks of attending school,” he said, continuing that COVID also has known risks but “there’s no zero risk situation that I can conceive of, with COVID or with anything else to make the district totally safe.”
As the district continues its staggered reopening schedule, the superintendent mentioned that there will be more mental health support for teachers.
“Teachers and educators across the country have been feeling—well before the pandemic—marginalized, unimportant, not well respected. And now they are in a position where they’re literally putting their health in danger,” Scherz said. He continued that this is a great opportunity for parents to come together and acknowledge that teachers have always made tremendous sacrifices.