WEST CALDWELL, NJ — As concern mounted from parents of children in the district regarding the current model of instruction being implemented, Superintendent of Schools, Dr. James Heinegg began Monday’s virtual Board of Education meeting by reading a statement to the community on behalf of himself and the board members stating that “community was one of the school district’s three core values and that it was especially important for us to keep at the forefront as we navigate these difficult times … We are committed to providing the best educational experience possible for our children.”

After an invitation for parents to volunteer to join a parent advisory committee garnered approximately 200 responses, it was confirmed that all volunteers will be included and there will be meetings grouping the parents into groups of eight to ten. Heinegg stated that all parents would be involved in the discussions to “provide input on the current schedule and what should the next model look like.  We will take that input very seriously.”

It was not confirmed how frequently the individual groups would meet or what the time frame was to gather input. Heinegg concluded his superintendent report by announcing the district calendar will be changed to incorporate an all remote learning day of instruction for November 3, Election Day. By Governor Phil Murphy’s Executive Order #177, students are not allowed to be in school buildings on Election Day.

Sign Up for West Essex Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Two Grover Cleveland Middle School (GCMS) students, Melia Hillman and Jad Geis, who are house leaders, provided the board with feedback from their perspectives regarding the instruction they have received so far this school year. Melia stated her in-person experience this week “was great and it was phenomenally done and not only was the environment very reassuring and safe … the teachers and staff did a great job with their lessons considering there was about one-third of the students that they usually have.” 

She continued, “One note though throughout the day there were some Internet issues especially because many had brought their own personal devices and I noticed some had problems connecting to the Wi-Fi.” Hillman confirmed the remote experience was “very well done but there were also some connection issues which could get in the way of our learning.”  

Hillman, who is enrolled in the hybrid model, said, “As a student representing many of my peers, one concern that we have as a collective community is the amount of screen time which is not in coordination of what experts would suggest,  which is a maximum of two hours per day.  But to meet the standards of education, which is four hours as well as homework, that adds up to a lot of hours in virtual learning which is more screen time than students should be having.  So, do you all have a plan as to how we can address this and move forward from this because although screen time is important for our learning environment it definitely has some damaging effects.”

Jad Geib, who is an all-remote student, commented, “It is more confusing I feel like, but I know the teachers and staff are trying their best and I really appreciate it.  I think it’s been good, but there are a few bumps along the way, but a very good experience.” Geib then questioned if the district would move to a “1:1 district” (providing individual Chromebooks assigned to each student).

Heinegg thanked the students for their input and acknowledged two points the students raised; the issue of increased screen time and the shift to a 1:1 initiative, commenting that they cannot resolve those issues immediately. Board member Julianne Grosso followed up with the students asking if they, like her own child, was experiencing frequent headaches due to the increased screen time. Both students confirmed that they have experienced headaches frequently since the increase of screen time.

Board member Dan Cipoletti thanked the students for coming and said, “You have made GCMS proud and the whole district proud for the way you have articulated your thoughts. I cannot comment on the screen time but on the 1:1 it has been a goal of the district and it will continue to be a goal of the district.” 

“GCMS is one of the buildings that we have more devices than students so we actually have enough devices at the middle school,” Heinegg said, “it is just that our model thus far is to have the devices in school and not necessarily assign them to a student. The difference between that and being 1:1 where the devices are distributed can be significant and be meaningful so it is definitely something that can be considered.”

During public comment Lauren D’Amico Corsaro questioned why the children are required to use SeeSaw versus Google in the fifth grade, specifically asking, “Why are we wasting valuable time that the teachers can be using active instruction?  It just does not make any sense. The kids and the teachers want Google classroom back, I just don’t see why you need to continue this for any longer.”  Heinegg said, “we will definitely take that back to the groups that are meeting, so that will be another chance to discuss that as well.”  

Corsaro responded that she has “raised this concern multiple times and has not had an answer, so this is where my frustration is coming from.” Grosso noted she has expressed the same sentiments to the administration. Grosso added that SeeSaw works better for the younger children, noting it was “difficult for the older ones and very time-consuming,” but was not sure if this was an issue that was systemic across the district in the elementary schools.  

Staff member Cindy Halen, who was on the call noted that SeeSaw was fully integratable with Google and that teachers should be using Google drive with SeeSaw especially in the fourth and fifth grades and suggested that some features may not be used correctly.  

During public comment Janet Sotomayor asked for an update regarding the livestreaming occurring in the middle and high school. Heinegg stated that the curriculum committee has met and some of the classes did use live streaming last week. He continued adding that the district is continuing to increase the integration of live streaming and also discussed which technology had worked well with that and what else may be needed. Heinegg confirmed the live streaming was “mainly with the all-remote students who joined the in-person classes so it looks like the next step will be to have all of the all remote kids live streamed for their next in-person session.”

Sotomayor asked if all the cohorts would be privy to the live streaming and therefore have new curriculum presented daily instead of the current model of new curricula presented once every three days. Heinegg stated that live streaming will be available for the “100% remote students at first” and the two hybrid cohorts who are not in school will be doing asynchronous work “in all likelihood.”  He continued that live streaming will be one of the discussion points in the upcoming parent meetings and the administration is monitoring the livestreaming at all levels and will gather feedback from that as well.

Agenda items included accepting the resignation for retirement purposes, with regret of Carol Macken, K-5 Humanities coach effective June 30, 2021. Macken began as an elementary teacher and spent her entire career in the district.  Fred Trentin, a custodian at James Caldwell High School will be retiring effective October 31, 2020.  John Scott Chamberlain who had retired as vice-principal from GCMS in June 2019, was appointed to provide administrative support up to five hours a week effective October 16 to December 23 at the middle school.

The next board of education conference meeting will be November 2.