MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The distance learning plan passed on May 18 by the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education to guide the rest of the school year is vexing local parents.
The “NJDOE 2020 School Health-Related Closure Plan” included no requirement for direct instruction by teachers by audio or video. Some area school districts, including Millburn, Livingston, and Roseland, require live instruction by video at least part of the week. Others, such as West Orange, do not.
Area parents, before and after the vote, expressed their frustration. Comments about the plan on various local Facebook parents’ groups included “upsetting - in both process and substance” and “the district has to stop hiding behind 'equity' as the reason they cannot provide more than a 'check box' approach to education for our kids.”
Maplewood parent Nathan Marinoff has been frustrated for weeks with the experience of his first-grader, who attends Marshall Elementary, during distance learning.
In terms of instruction, “what is being provided is at best inadequate, and at worst, cynically desultory,” said Marinoff. He thought that his child’s teacher might be “hamstrung by lack of guidance” and said it takes his child only 10-15 minutes every day to complete the posted assignments and there is “no, repeat no, follow up or person to person interaction between teacher and student.”
Prior to the Board’s vote he and his wife wrote and signed an open letter to the Board. Although he is not on Facebook, others shared it with his permission; when it was submitted to the Board of Education there were over 250 signators with mutual concerns.
The letter offered 17 questions to the Board and read, in part:
“To the School Board of South Orange-Maplewood:
We appreciate all the time and effort you dedicate to the cause of education and are reaching out to you in a spirit of collegiality and good faith.
We are confused and increasingly concerned by the failure of the South Orange-Maplewood School District to institute virtual remote instruction by the school district’s teachers during the pandemic. Comparably-sized neighboring school districts (including East Orange, Livingston, Millburn, Summit and Verona), have implemented comprehensive plans that include daily live video instruction by teachers for their students. This has been accomplished in the face of equivalent (or greater) challenges to those to which our district is subject.
Each of us is a SOMSD parent. Collectively, our children attend every school in the District. As we hope will be evident, our intent is not to divide, disadvantage or deprive anyone, but to make sure that all of the District’s students receive adequate, legally-required instruction during the crisis.”
The letter continued with 17 questions for the Board to consider, such as “1. What specific plan does the district have to resume direct instruction and meaningful individual feedback to students by their teachers during the time that school buildings are closed as a result of the pandemic?
2. In correspondence, Dr. Taylor has instructed that the district, “recommends,” that teachers engage classes online and that, “if teachers choose to do live lessons or interactions, that is their choice.” Why is this only a recommendation and left to the choice of the teachers?”
Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor read Marinoff’s letter up to question 11 of the 17, which is when the four minutes allotted to each speaker — or reading of the letter, in the remote meeting — was up. Taylor also read another detailed letter of concern about equity of instruction during distance learning, signed by parent Rachel Fisher and nine others; he read both letters during the public speaks portion of the live-streamed meeting.
Discussion of the 37-page plan — which was only posted for public review an hour and a half before the meeting — was limited to one or two questions from each board member. At one point Board Member Johanna Wright tried to ask a third follow-up question but was cut off; the answer given by Board President Annemarie Maini was that it was to keep the meeting rolling along in a timely manner.
At multiple times when board members expressed concerns about the details of the plan, Taylor answered with a version of “this plan can be adjusted” or “there is always room for improvement.” The plan did not include any live instruction requirement for any subject or at any grade level.
The plan passed with six yes votes. Board members Anthony Mazzocchi and Johanna Wright voted no, and Kamal Zubieta abstained.
Marinoff said he was “appalled” while watching the meeting live. Noting there were exceptions, he said, most of “the members of the Board seem concerned with everything but academic excellence and the well-being of the children.”
Marinoff said the thrust of his letter was to request “a plan that mandated live education for our students. In approving a plan that ignores this mandate, the Board has abrogated its responsibility to the children of the district.” Marinoff noted that “it is to our children that the Board owes its primary obligation, not to the teachers, nor to itself.”
In response, he started a petition on change.org addressed to the Essex County Office of Education and the New Jersey Department of Education; the NJDOE is the governing body that required each school district submit a remote learning plan by May 22.
The petition asks “that the Essex County Office of Education and New Jersey Department of Education, which exercise supervisory authority over the South Orange Maplewood School District, reject the District’s Plan and provide direct oversight to ensure that an appropriate school closure plan is developed.”
The petition noted that “concerned parents called for transparency in the District’s distance learning planning, for live instruction to be provided to students, and for coherent, consistent instructions to teachers as to the scope of their responsibilities during the current public health crisis. Rather than do so, the District developed a Plan without providing meaningful transparency or opportunity for community feedback, which actually calls for restrictions on live education, lacks clear requirements relating to the quality and duration of instruction, and offers IEP services based on whether or not a student receives Extended School Year services.”
Another concern stated in the petition was that "Dr. Ronald Taylor, the District’s superintendent, has justified the Plan by saying that, “access and equity are not simply concerns for children and parents, but for teachers and their families as well,” and by insisting that any concerns voiced by the community in favor of increased daily hours of instruction were, "one-sided," and insufficiently sensitive to the personal demands of District faculty. While Parents in the SOMSD support teachers and understand the difficulties inherent to working in the current environment, the District’s choice to not only accept but affirmatively recommend that no live instruction be provided to its students is unacceptable. Prerecorded videos, links to worksheets and YouTube or Kahn academy videos do not constitute adequate instruction. Such activities fail to satisfy the NJDOE’s guidance that school districts follow N.J.A.C. 6A:16-10.1(c), requiring instruction be provided by certified teachers."
In less than 24 hours, the petition had 402 of the 500 signatures it sought.
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