WEST ESSEX, NJ — With over 660 attendees on the call the West Essex Board of Education presented the proposed plans for the new school year during a special meeting held on July 27th.    Superintendent Damion Macioci gave an overview of the timeline presented to the district as directives were issued through the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) that required  in-person instruction be available as he presented a PowerPoint detailing the district’s plan which may be found in its entirety on the district website.

The plan for the West Essex Regional District is to provide instruction with a hybrid model of presenting in-person instruction on a rotating schedule and remote learning.  Director of Guidance Lisa Hulse explained that utilization of the program Genesis will enable the district to create evenly based cohorts of students that will divide the population into three equal groupings taking into account variables such as keeping siblings together on a similar schedule and that will also balance class sizes.  The decision of not dividing the students alphabetically was explained noting that there were opportunities for uneven sized groupings if that were to be the determining threshold.

Macioci stated that multiple committees that comprised of 65 individuals had been formed focusing upon the key areas of:  Social Emotional Learning and School Climate and Culture, Facilities, Medical, Building Operations, Extra Curricular/Athletics and Distance Learning.    Committee members included administration, board members, content supervisors, teaching staff, safety specialists, technology administrators, custodians, administrative assistants, parents, physicians, guidance counselors, doctors, nurses, and health officers.

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Macioci and Caesar Diliberto, principal of West Essex Regional High both confirmed that the plans presented were data driven, particularly in response to feedback from surveys presented to the stakeholders.  Noting that a response of 151 staff members and 930 parents presented a valid response, results were analyzed from questions regarding such topics as use of transportation, daily temperature screenings, visitor access, type of instruction (in-person, remote or hybrid) and lunchroom usage.

Using a similar approach to New Jersey and New York State’s re-opening plans the district will implement a phased approach with the goal of reaching full capacity at a time yet to be determined.  Beginning September 2nd, a “virtual plus” single session with select cohorts and subsets of students will begin for a six-day duration.  Phase 2 begins in-person instruction with 33% of the student population in the buildings for a single session which is four hours (the amount of time required by the NJDOE to account for a full day of instruction).  The other 66% of students for that day will be assigned to remote learning.  Beginning in Phase 2 all classes will meet virtually on Wednesdays so in the event a mandatory requirement to cease in-person instruction is necessitated the transition will be smoother as a schedule will already be in place.  Phase 3 would begin in October extending the school day to a full day and Phase 4 is targeted to begin sometime from mid-November to early December with the goal of increasing student capacity to 50% in the buildings.  The 100% occupancy goal of Phase 5 has no scheduled targeted date at this time. 

The cohorts of students divided by the Genesis program would be assigned a color, either red, green, or blue and would follow a schedule offering in-person instruction at least once a week but twice a week as the rotation continues.  The cohort plan allows for less students to be transported and be physically present in the buildings reducing opportunities for personal contact for both students and staff.  Students and staff will be required to wear face coverings unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health.  Business Administrator Melissa Kida confirmed that wipes and hand sanitizers will be available in all classrooms and it will be expected that students wipe down desks upon entering the class which will supplement the cleaning and sanitizing performed daily by the custodial staff.

As it pertains to remote learning, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Ryan Gupta stated there will be a significant increase in accountability and support than had been provided in the Spring.  Gupta noted that there will be “enhanced infrastructure which allows for synchronous instruction throughout the district”. Students at home will receive synchronous instruction and be able to participate in live discussions and activities along with the students attending in-person.

Gupta reported that the district’s network administrator Mike Johnson, will make available optional tutorials for teaching staff during the summer months in addition to intensive professional development training once the school year begins that will assist the staff in providing online instruction. Teachers will be instructing in real time and the students at home for the day will be required to log in to each class as attendance will be taken similar to a “normal” day at school.   

Members of the board thanked the administration for organizing and crafting the plan presented.  Opportunities for comments and questions from the hundreds of parents and stakeholders who attended the Zoom chat were provided.  Roseland Councilwoman Jean Perrotti thanked the board for the “extensive and well thought out plan” and reported that a constituent had asked to why masks would be required for the students if the plan was to separate desks six feet apart.  Macioci responded that although the minimum standard as set forth by the NJDOE requires a mask if a six foot separation is not conducive to a situation, it was upon recommendation from the “medical” subcommittee that wished to create a higher standard than is allowable.  Macioci did note that it was the intention to get the students outside and attempt to provide “breaks” during the day for the students where they can safely remove their masks for a short period of time.

Other callers asked about the coordination with the sending districts if the cohorts would also be structured to allow for younger siblings not in the regional district yet.  Macioci responded that it was not possible to align all of the district’s cohorts with the four sending districts based upon siblings in the lower grades, but the high school and middle school will be aligned to account for siblings.  Other questions posed focused on the opportunity for students to participate in physical education, whether seniors can drive to school, when schedules will be available, how the district will address a potential learning gap, and questions about the cyber security of the programs used for online learning. 

The board of education will have a formal vote on the plan during their next meeting that will be held on August 5th.