WEST ORANGE, NJ — Following Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order to extend school closures until at least May 15, West Orange Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone described what he thinks reopening the schools might look like and Eveny de Mendez, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, addressed recent updates to the e-learning program.

During Monday's virtual West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting, de Mendez announced that teachers have been asked to simplify their lessons as a result of recent evidence indicating that students are taking more time to complete assignments independently than they would in a typical classroom setting.

This will also result in teachers moving toward assignments that can be completed over the course of several days, she said. As part of this effort, English language arts (ELA) classwork will be reduced from 90 minutes to 60 minutes, social studies and science work will be updated twice a week rather than three times, and electives will be updated once a week.

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“On the other side of that, if there are students who are moving through the assignments quickly, and they feel that they can accomplish more, we’re encouraging our students to enter into our e-learning platform, which is outside of Google Classroom,” said de Mendez. “There, students will find many enrichment activities.”

A range of activities from social-emotional learning to mindfulness exercises, can be accessed through the school-counseling page, where students can also view resources for dealing with anxiety or for how to deal with being separated from friends. Students can also visit the library resources page or their elective courses for additional assignments.

Regarding elementary-level report cards, de Mendez said that parents can expect to start receiving communication during the week of April 27.

“Just as a note, those grades will only reflect the instruction that took place prior to the schools closing, so the elementary report cards will reflect not the elementary [virtual] learning,” said de Mendez, adding elementary students will now be graded on a pass/fail system since many students were not able to submit assignments during the first two weeks of remote schooling.

In response to inquiries about the gifted and talent program, de Mendez said that potential students will be determined through the previous year’s state assessments and beginning-of-year MAP scores, which were collected prior to the school closures.

“The only thing that would be missing would be that appeals process or the testing,” she said. “What we’ve decided is to just hold that over the summer.”

She added that parents who wish to appeal into the program may do so once school is back in session.

Additionally, de Mendez announced that some changes have been made in order to better accommodate students from pre-K to grade 5 who have varied abilities to be able to access and complete schoolwork using the remote-learning platform.

In response to an in inquiry from WOBOE President Ken Alper, Cascone indicated that the number of households who do not have access to either a Chromebook or MiFi (mobile hotspot) device is “extremely low” and that all of those homes have “been contacted multiple times.”

However, he added that some households might not have access “simply by virtue of the fact that they may not be here due to emergency circumstances.”

According to the superintendent, the district has distributed approximately 750 Chromebooks and more than 100 MiFi devices to students.

In his own report, Cascone stated that although the district will need further guidance from the state to understand what students and teachers should expect upon reopening the schools, the district has already begun preparing for the eventuality.

“Obviously, the return to school raises many questions, but we don’t want to be flatfooted in the event that the governor opens the opportunity for students and staff to return to school,” said Cascone. “One thing we’ve done is we’ve purchased thousands of masks because we’ve heard that if school returns that masks might need to be worn.”

In other news, board member Cheryl Merklinger encouraged West Orange residents to support the Mayor’s Sunshine Fund by purchasing “We Are West Orange - Stronger Together” clothing, which was co-designed by West Orange High School (WOHS) football coaches Darnell Grant and Andrew Mazurek.

According to Merklinger, more than 650 articles have already been ordered and more than $9,000 has been raised “to help families in West Orange that are dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

WOBOE Vice President Terry Trigg-Scales also encouraged residents to respond to the 2020 census since nearly half of the township has yet to respond.

“You should be getting a reminder letter and a paper questionnaire in the mail if you haven’t gotten it this week,” she said. “And please be reminded that you can answer the questionnaire by phone and online. Each person who is counted brings federal funds to our community and to our schools for the next 10 years.”

The WOBOE will hold a public policy workshop virtually on Monday, April 27 at 5:30 p.m. The next regular board meeting is scheduled for May 4 at 7:30 p.m.