MAPLEWOOD, NJ — After a spontaneous spring of remote instruction, the SOMSD Board of Education said at Monday's remote meeting the district will reform distance learning methods in preparation for the fall. This decision followed widespread community criticism of the current plan, which has included a petition demanding “a detailed plan for synchronous learning beginning in Fall 2020.”

Next school year, schools could either follow a traditional, “hybrid,” or completely distant schedule — the hybrid design has not yet been determined, though it may resemble an A/B week schedule, three-hour days or a certain percentage of in-person sessions. To prepare for these 2020-2021 school year decisions, the district is forming a Task Force composed of the SOMSD senior leadership team, as well as academic supervisors, principals, and teacher representatives.   

Whichever scenario occurs, South Orange and Maplewood schools will nevertheless emphasize live instruction. They will achieve this by adopting a new platform that fosters collaboration between instructors and integrates with programs like Google Suite and PowerSchool. The district has not yet chosen a specific application but will soon begin the bid process. After receiving proposals, a team of administrators, supervisors, and teachers will then review platforms before choosing one that best serves students and families. 

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“Age-appropriate live digital instruction will be mandated for all,” Superintendent Ronald Taylor said at Monday’s Board of Education meeting. “We’ve spent this time assessing digital platforms, and we’ve earmarked a significant budget line for the procurement of a new learning management system...we hope to have it for the BOE to consider at the July meeting.”

These updates addressed the responses to the BOE and Columbia High School students’ separate community surveys, which respectively reached 1,735 and 559 respondents each.  This spring’s home instruction lacked engagement between teachers and students, according to the BOE respondents — the majority of which were parents and guardians — who mostly described their distance learning experience as “not adequate.” 

The CHS student survey respondents, who represented about a quarter of the school population, most commonly characterized their workload as either the same as previously or more difficult. Columbia students also emphasized the need for greater administrative guidance: Only 17 percent said they felt “very supported” in terms of academics and 22 percent in terms of mental health.

BOE research also highlighted the digital divide faced by families during remote instruction this spring. The district has issued nearly 1,000 Chromebooks and purchased $25,000 worth of WiFi hotspots for local families, Taylor said, in partnership with the Achieve Foundation and the district’s Parenting Center.

Next year, the new distance learning platform could pose a challenge for students, families and teachers as they adjust to an unfamiliar program. The Board of Education therefore plans to give teachers multiple training opportunities throughout the summer, which will be divided based on employees’ technology experience, in addition to the two professional development days this upcoming fall. Parents will also likely receive this training, SOMSD Director of Curriculum and Instruction Ann Bodnar said.

And returning students to schools could require extra precautions like frequent temperature checks, regular deep cleanings of facilities and providing reusable masks for students and employees. Ultimately, the specific scenario applied to SOMSD will depend on the New Jersey Department of Education’s forthcoming guidelines, Taylor said, which may not arrive until later in the summer. “We are trying to prepare for everything,” Taylor said. 

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