WEST ESSEX, NJ — In the final segment of TAPinto’s series of interviews with local school district leadership regarding schools’ opening in September a discussion with Board of Education members and teacher union leadership offers insight into specific areas of concern from their perspectives.  These roles are crucial to the business of the district and have been presented with possibly the greatest set of challenges to date that elected leaders to each entity has experienced or could have imagined just a few short months ago.  The New Jersey School Board Association also provides an overview of how districts are addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and school reopening.

West Essex

West Essex Board of Education is comprised of nine members representing sending districts Essex Fells, Fairfield, Roseland, and North Caldwell.  Maryadele Wojtowicz a North Caldwell resident is the president of the Board of Education.  A veteran board member Wojtowicz has served for eight years on the board with West Essex and prior to that six years on her local board in North Caldwell.  The district is home to approximately 1700 students and offers a middle school for grades seven and eight and a regional high school.

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Wojtowicz when questioned what the board’s first priority was responded: “As you know these are unprecedented times, and we are working very diligently to return our staff and students back to school in September.  Their health and safety is our first priority.  This will not be an easy task and we have been working on many different plans that best fit our district.”

Setting up protocols for safety has a price tag attached to it and funds had been provided by the CARES Act to districts across the state.  The apportionment was determined by a formula based upon Title 1 criteria that is determined by the number of students who receive either a free or reduced lunch, not the estimated costs of materials such as signage, dividers, PPE, sanitizers, cleaning products or custodial overtime.  When questioned if the CARES funding the district received would adequately cover the bulk of anticipated expenses Wojtowicz responded:  “While the CARES funds are greatly appreciated, they will come nowhere close to covering expenses we as a district will incur to  supply PPE equipment, social distance signage, etc. to our staff and students.  We received $34,778.   The shortfall is that the CARES money is based on our Title 1 grants.  Even though we do not receive as much money as other districts, our PPE, social distancing, and cleaning supplies expenses are just as costly”.   

Regarding transportation, particularly since West Essex buses students from four towns considerations must be addressed to provide for social distancing protocols while busing students.  It should be expected that there may be a decrease in students being transported due to options such as virtual schooling only or a student may be driven by a parent where they would normally be bused but districts need to also plan for transportation.  Wojtowicz noted: “We expect to bus our students this fall.  Most of our students live outside of the two miles and our roads around the school are very hazardous roads.  We are working on providing students the safest route to school, while keeping the safety and social distancing of our students as a top priority”.    

Two primary functions of board of educations are to draft policy and craft budgets for the district.  Due to the pandemic both of these charges will be required to be reconsidered moving forward.  Examples of policies that would need to be revised would be the Visitor’s Policy, Public Attendance at School Events, Crowd Control, Attendance and Hygienic Management.  President Wojtowicz acknowledged that “our policy committee will be meeting in the near future to review and make modifications to our policies where necessary”.

Districts have yet to get a final number on whether or not staff will be returning for in class instruction or request to work remotely solely.  The pool of substitutes which is normally small may become even further reduced so there is still an unknown as to what impact if any that will have on school budgets which are still subject to potential further cuts in state aid.   The only thing “known” is an abstract – custodial overtime will increase to ensure sanitizing procedures are implemented and ongoing.  Wojtowicz did state “at the current moment, we don't foresee any budgetary issues with our staff choosing not to return”.

On behalf of her colleagues the board president stated: “I want to thank our Superintendent, principals and entire administration for all their hard work and dedication.  They have been in full swing since March with the closing of schools to the reopening of our schools.  They have worked tirelessly to think of every scenario, and every unknown while trying to safely open our schools”.  

West Orange

The district provides an education for approximately 6,600 students and buses about 5,000 students daily.  Boards of Education usually slow business down just a bit during the summer and meetings primarily address routine business matters.  The summer of 2020 has been unlike any other for the members across the state with frequent meetings via a Zoom platform that attempt to address a myriad of issues and scenarios.  Ken Alper is president of the board of education, is completing his first term and is the member with the most seniority.

Asked about the funding the CARES Act provided to the district Alper noted:  “The potential costs are really infinite, so no, I don’t think the roughly $600,000 we’ll see from the CARES act could possibly meet all the needs that could come up. Obviously we appreciate the funding and it will absolutely help; we just bought 30,000 more masks and spent $40,000 on hand sanitizer, for instance – but there are so many unknowns and what-ifs at this point – especially when you consider that we don’t know how much of our regular funding, between state aid and local property tax revenue, is going to be reduced or delayed”.

Planning is also taking place in the transportation office for September with many unknowns looming in the picture. When asked if the district would be able to provide busing to all of its students who normally would be bused,  Alper stated:  “Yes, but: if we tried to bus all of our students five days a week, it would be absolutely impossible, not just from a budgetary standpoint, but also from a reality standpoint: there are a limited number of buses and drivers out there. Between reducing the number of students in the building on any given day and the fact that many parents are going to opt out of busing and drive their students themselves, it does look as if we’ll be able to provide transportation for those who will still need it”.

Like West Essex, West Orange contracts with school policy management company Strauss Esmay who is working to provide updates for all the board polices that need adjustment for COVID-19.  Policy committee chairs will be recommending updates as received and Alper noted the board will “fast-track those as needed” however the process does require a first and second reading on all new and amended policies in order to provide public input.

A primary objective for board members is always the goal of student achievement and particularly this year concerns of regression and retention are on the forefront of consideration.  Alper stated:  “Obviously that’s {student achievement} on our radar; at this point, the administration is carrying the ball forward on this, planning how instruction will look in the fall, both remote and in-person, and making sure student achievement is at the forefront of everything we do. I’ll use an analogy: our team did a great job of building an emergency airfield moments before the planes needed to take off this past spring, and I’m confident that the lessons we’ve learned will go a long way to building the multiple runways with advanced control towers that we need for the fall”.

Looking towards the immediate future and commenting on the recent past, Alper concluded his remarks by stating:  I cannot say enough about the great job our administration is doing in terms of planning and figuring this all out. There is a lot of flailing around out there in other places, but we have got an impressive team here doing great work. Now all that said, we’re only a couple weeks away from schools opening in some parts of the country, so it’s possible the lessons we learn from them by the middle of August might require some last-minute changes here – but I’m fully confident we’ll collectively rise to meet the challenge”.

West Orange Education Association

Mark Maniscalco has been president of the West Orange Education Association (WOEA) for over seven years and vice-president before that for many years.  The association represents between 1,100-1,200 members including teachers, paraprofessionals, administrative assistants, computer technicians and security officers.  When asked what the biggest concern for the membership is, Maniscalco’s answer was direct and to the point: “Our biggest concern is always the health and safety of our students, our members, and the families of our entire community”.

Maniscalco similar to his colleagues across the state has been fielding numerous calls from his membership with a multitude of concerns and questions.  One of the most asked is what if the member is unable to return to the building due to a myriad of concerns and was asked what expectations he had for accommodating staff members requests.  He responded: “The Governor's guidance requires that reasonable accommodations be made for those whose elevated risk factors make it unrealistic for them to be required to face the inherent dangers that the reoccupied schools will pose.  Our Superintendent has recognized that there will be some staff members who will be unable to return and anticipates that some staff will continue to serve remotely.  We do not yet have a solid grasp on how many staff members will be in this position.  Nor do we know how many students will be kept home by parents who do not want their children or households to face the elevated risk of exposure that in-person attendance will bring.  Additionally, we will unquestionably face situations where staff members will need to quarantine during the school year, and these will pose a whole different set of challenges with respect to in-person education”.

There is much speculation as to what exactly instruction will look like this school year.  Will a teacher be teaching simultaneously in-person and online in real time?  Will there be staffing assignments segregated by those in-person and others solely offering instruction remotely?  President Maniscalco commented: “This has not yet been definitively determined, but since it is highly unlikely that all students will be simultaneously present in the classroom, some type of remote learning will need to be provided along with in-person opportunities.  Instruction is also very likely to look different at the various age levels, as the needs of the learners vary distinctly with maturity levels and with the ability to be more self-directed and would involve a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning for most students”.   

Expectations for the students to begin the school year and their abilities to have retained information from the spring semester are a consideration for educators.  Maniscalco noted: “From my conversations with educators, there seems to be an understanding that the difficulties faced by the sudden, unanticipated, and unprecedented shuttering of our schools and the lightning fast transition to remote learning may result in some minor need for remediation.  Thankfully, our staff and students did a superb job of transitioning and our teachers worked extremely hard with our parent partners to keep students engaged and motivated and on track academically, so the amount of remediation needed should not be great”. 

As New Jersey has recorded over 179,000 positive test results and nearly 16,000 deaths from COVID-19, fear and apprehension play a large part for many public-school employees as they consider whether or not to return to the buildings.  Commenting on possible early retirements or resignations Maniscalco stated:  “We have already experienced a number of resignations/retirements of those who would have continued serving our children, but whose concern for their safety has driven them to end their careers more prematurely than they would have preferred.  I am aware of a number of our members who have serious reservations about returning for in-person classes during this pandemic, and who are waiting to see whether we actually are expected to physically return, what such a return would look like, and what accommodations will be for those who are at elevated risk before making their decisions.  I would be very surprised if this deadly situation does not cause at least a few more retirements before school resumes in September”.

New Jersey School Board Association

The New Jersey School Board Association (NJSBA) oversees hundreds of school boards across the state and provides guidance, information, and leadership to thousands of board members.  Below is a statement issued by Frank Belluscio

Deputy Executive Director/Director of Communications of NJSBA on behalf of the association commenting as districts plan for September: 

“Plan Development:  The state’s guidance, The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education, requires school districts to develop reopening plans and notify parents of scheduling four weeks prior to the first day of school. Planning has taken into account adequate staffing, the capacity and layout of school facilities, and the instructional needs of students. Most are adopting hybrid approaches that involve varying amounts of in-person instruction.

To accommodate social distancing and health protocols, many districts are assigning students to separate groupings, with each one present in the building on an assigned day.

We have been surveying our membership periodically. Although the majority of respondents indicate that their districts will be able to meet the four-week timeline, a substantial number (one-quarter to one-third) indicate that their districts are considering a change in the school calendar to delay the first day of school.

Plans must include all stakeholders, including local boards of education. In addition, school boards will have to adopt or amend policies in certain areas. NJSBA has provided sample policies that local boards of education can use for this purpose. Subject areas include visitor protocols, operation and maintenance, transportation, illness, and health examinations.

All-Virtual Option: On July 20th, the governor announced that parents would be offered the option of all-virtual instruction. Integrating it into the reopening plans has required many school districts to resurvey their communities to determine the number of parents who would consider the all-virtual option.

Health and Safety:  We appreciate the flexibility that the state’s guidelines give local school districts, there is a need for addition and stronger direction on health and safety issues from the New Jersey Department of Health. Among areas of concern are situations in which a student or staff member is diagnosed with COVID-19 and the school district’s role in contact tracing”.

As this three-part series concludes it is abundantly clear that there are more questions than answers for all stakeholders and plans and scenarios are fluid and will remain so.  What may seem like an acceptable plan for a district can be subject to pivot and change without warning.  Will there be a vacuum of experienced educators due to early retirements or resignations?  How will the buildings be realistically prepared and sanitized daily?  If a parent must go to work outside of the home where does the child go if it is an “off day”?  Will standardized testing still be required via remote learning and how will they be administered if still required?  For the rising senior what will the college process look like?  How will all the children adapt to the ever-changing protocols?

Perhaps as President Alper suggested New Jersey will have the benefit of observing what other states have done whose schools begin in August and act accordingly or will a possible second wave in New Jersey come about and remote learning will be the only option?  In what is becoming a cliché but a very real truth until a vaccination is approved and distributed this period in time is our “new normal” whatever that means.