MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Nearly 70% of South Orange Maplewood students are choosing to return to schools in a hybrid capacity, but racial disparities are emerging as Black students are far more likely than other races to remain virtual, according to district data presented at last night's South Orange Maplewood Board of Education meeting.

Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor told members of the SOMSD board that 80% of white students across the district have chosen to go back in-person, while just 49% of Black students have. The majority of Asian students (51%) and Hispanic/Latinx (56%) are planning to return to hybrid, although that’s still far less than white students or those of multiple races (71%).

Taylor told board members this disparity could exacerbate pre-existing academic achievement gaps. He said many students are growing tired of digital learning.

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“They're just not in a space where they want to engage digitally anymore. They're not feeling connected. Their learning style isn't being satisfied by this platform that we're all on,” Taylor said.

Board members Elissa Malespina and Courtney Winkfield expressed frustration that Black students are not faring as well and not returning as other groups are.

“My concern is that we're doing everything in our power to help those students who are struggling,” Malespina said. “I'm very concerned because it doesn't seem that that is happening right now.”

The board members pushed Taylor to explain and address these issues. He said families are making personal choices.

Other data shows that elementary students are more likely to return to hybrid, with a high of 80% of students at Tuscan and 79% at both Jefferson and Marshall. Columbia High School had the lowest rate of return, at 59%.

The meeting also included a presentation by Michael Alves, whose consultancy is helping the district implement its Intentional Integration plan, announced earlier this month. SOMSD will be using the methodology of a “modified Berkeley Approach,” which leverages an algorithm that will assign incoming kindergartners to schools.

Alves said disruption to students would be minimized by focusing on incoming kindergartners. He and fellow consultant Nancy McArdle explained the algorithm will take into account Census data for where children live, breaking them into 38 “block groups” made up of about 345 households. Factors further used to make assignments include race/ethnicity, household income and educational attainment of adults 25 and over in these groups. Siblings in younger grades would likely be given preference to remain together in the same school at the same time.

The consultancy conducted simulations to run through various outcomes based on how assignments are made taking into account various factors without explicitly assigning children based on their race.

Assignments are due to incoming kindergartners by the end of June.

Winkfield said getting a diverse group of learners “won’t put them on an even playing field.” She asked what work was being done to ensure elementary schools are ready to work with these new populations of students. Malespina suggested the district allow the community to ask questions to ensure understanding of the new approach and incorporate feedback.

Other updates:

  • The district said it reached an agreement with SOMEA regarding mechanical ventilation. Over 200 air purification units have been acquired and installed in classrooms, Taylor said.
  • Taylor said the district bought desk partitions for elementary students returning for hybrid as a “fail-safe” given Gov. Murphy’s recent allowance for three-feet of social distancing for elementary schools.
  • Reopening phases remain on track, with Phase 4 starting on Monday April 26, with 8th graders and seniors coming back for hybrid, and combined cohorts for grades prek-2. Phase 5 is still set for Monday, May 3 for the final eight weeks of the year. All elementary schools will be five days, and 7th graders will also come back in-person. Board President Thair Joshua called for families to remain vigilant against COVID-19, and for the district to not let virtual learning suffer.



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