WEST ORANGE, NJ — Members of the West Orange community, including parents and staff, were waiting anxiously on Thursday to learn about the updated plan to reopen schools in September.
Following the preliminary plan that was presented last month, the West Orange Public Schools (WOPS) Superintendent Dr. Scott Cascone moderated a town hall with panelists from several departments needed for reopening including transportation, food, buildings and grounds, health and safety, technology and special services.
Although the plan is expected the change between now and the upcoming West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting on Aug. 17, the district presented a plan consisting of two phases.
Phase 1, also called the “Fall virtual” phase, will have students staying at home for synchronous learning from Sept. 14 to Nov. 9 and then transitioning to phase 2, a hybrid model.
Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Eveny de Mendez, who presented the updated proposal, said that the plan works because the state guidelines outlined in The Road Back manual gives districts the decision to define what it means to “bring students back in person at some capacity.”
Cascone added that after being approved by the WOBOE, if the proposed plan is not approved by the state then the district will move immediately to a hybrid model.
“We believe that the way in which we are bringing students in and servicing students, whether it be through our academic programs or support programs, or some of our extracurricular programs, that we are tending enough to the whole child and to those students who need it most alongside of a robust virtual program,” he said.
“We believe that our plan is not only in the spirit of what the state has asked us to do, but it’s actually taking a more enlightened approach to doing it, which places a critical focus on feasibility and student and staff safety.”
In addition to the groups mentioned by the superintendent, de Mendez continued that other groups including incoming kindergartners and new registrants will benefit from in person orientations. Basic Skills or Title I students and English Language Learners (ELL) will also benefit from in person testing. Students in need of counseling, support, and Chromebooks will also be able to do so in person.
Starting on or about Nov. 9, de Mendez explained that the district will evaluate if all students will be able to return in some capacity, but in order to ensure everyone’s safety, a series of cleaning practices will be evaluated by the district physician and nurses and then approved by the WOBOE.
In terms of transportation, Director of Transportation Elena McFarland said, buses will be thoroughly cleaned in the morning and the afternoon and after each cohort of students, not exceeding 22, is dropped off at school.
In terms of buildings and grounds, all schools will be cleaned daily with the use of electrostatic applicators and guns that sprays a mist disinfecting wide surfaces. Director of Buildings and Grounds Bob Csigi also added that bathrooms will be cleaned more frequently and noted on the door when it was last cleaned.
Unlike the previous plan, which had students potentially eating in classrooms and removing masks under certain circumstances indoors, Cascone said that neither lunch nor breakfast will be eaten indoors. Instead, according to Director of Food Services Joshua Kreutz, lunch and the following day’s breakfast will be delivered to students in class on the first day and eaten at home. Later there will options to “grab-and-go,” according to the superintendent.
In terms of the hybrid instructional model, all students will be in school in person for four hours a day, but at the elementary school level, students will have two consecutive in person days and two consecutive remote live instruction days.
Students at the middle schools and high school meanwhile, will also have two consecutive in person days, but it will be an alternating block schedule based on last name with students in school for four days over two alternate weeks. On the days students do not meet in person, they will be meeting virtually. All students will have at-home Asynchronous instruction on Friday, with students who need office hours or need to be on-site for academic support as needed.
According to West Orange High School (WOHS) Principal Hayden Moore, on the days that students meet in person, only 25-percent or up to 500 students will be in school at once.
Parents who would like to opt out of the district’s hybrid model may choose to request full-time remote learning for their child by completing a digital form.
De Mendez also added that in case schools close again, the district is prepared to transition from the hybrid model to full-time remote learning, where all students and teachers will be remote, but will continue to follow the hybrid model schedule.
Even though there are a variety of challenges facing the district, including issues with the amount of teachers who will need to take medical or family leave and the potential to lose additional funding in excess of the $1.5 million that was already lost, and ensuring that all buildings have access to PPE and screening equipment, Cascone remains optimistic that the current plan represents a “safe and effective compromise” to address all questions and issues that have been raised.
According to Business Administrator John Calavano, the district has applied to two grants; the Elementary Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund awarded $608,102 through the CARES Act which will be utilized for programs, technology, training and additional PPE. The district has also applied for a Digital Divide grant to the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) in the amount of $357,500 for Chromebooks but has not heard back from the DOE.
To watch the recording of the virtual town hall or to review the presentation of the plan go to woboe.org/reopen.
The next virtual WOBOE meeting will be on Aug. 17 at 7:30 p.m.