WEST ORANGE, NJ – There were more questions raised than answered at Monday’s West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting after Jay Wecht, an executive member of the West Orange Education Association (WOEA) and a teacher at Roosevelt Middle School, commented that the WOEA would stand behind any decision made by the WOBOE and Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
The district has since decided to close school to students on Monday in order to prepare faculty members for potential extended closure, but Wecht said the WOEA is concerned about “the effectiveness and the utility of teaching remotely to the children in the event of school closures.”
Wecht acknowledged on Monday that this would be a “chaotic and challenging time” for the district, adding there are currently no existing models that indicate that remote education, or teleschooling, would “foster true and effective teaching.”
He also implored that although the district is currently wading through “untested waters,” it is important to keep the student’s best interests in mind by not being “unduly influenced” by decisions being made in neighboring towns.
In response to these concerns, Cascone assured that the WOEA would be considered “equity partners” in all decisions on this situation moving forward.
When he addressed the teleschooling model earlier this week, Cascone stated at the time that he “was not really even seriously entertaining” that option due to the many challenges, obstacles and questions that he deemed unanswerable.
Although the New Jersey Department of Education has issued a memorandum stating that a tele-school day would count as an instructional day in the event that the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) orders schools to close, Cascone recognized the challenges that this would pose in West Orange.
He was specifically concerned about how a virtual school day would be implemented in a district where a number of students might not have access to Internet or other tools needed to ensure academic success outside of school and how the district would accommodate the needs of special needs students—particularly those who are behaviorally or intellectually disabled and need access to specialized instruction.
“I think it’s safe to say that what our teachers do on a daily basis in these classrooms cannot and should not be placed at the feet of parents in the home, and [this] is in essence what we are expecting and requiring of our parents,” said Cascone, adding that it is “a conceit to say that any kind of plan that’s developed, including and not limited to virtual schooling, is going to satisfy that [population of students].”
Cascone also questioned the age at which virtual schooling should be considered appropriate.
“We don’t tele-school really any of our kids exclusively in our buildings,” he said. “Now, there are certain grade levels that lend better to this. We have a seven through 12 one-to-one initiative [using Chromebooks]…For those students and for those teachers, transitioning into that model would be certainly be much more easy than it would be, say, for a kindergarten student and kindergarten parents.”
In the meantime, Cascone noted that the district—with the help of Eveny de Mendez, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction—is currently in the process of determining the extent of access that West Orange households have to computers and to the Internet so that a “Plan B” can be formulated for those students who do not have technological access.
Earlier this week, an “E-Learning Home Readiness Survey” was distributed to families in order to measure Internet access and technology/device options at home.
However, as the district continues to determine the logistics of virtual education, Cascone also raised concerns regarding the status of other staff members within the district.
“We have quite a number of staff members who perform very important duties in our schools on a daily basis other than our instructional staff,” he said.
Reiterating that any remote education sessions will be counted as instructional days according to the NJDOE, Cascone specifically wondered whether staff members such as guidance counselors, nurses, administrative assistants, custodians and bus drivers would still be paid for those days.
“I’m hoping that our partners in the county and the state begin to pay attention to […] some of these larger issues and begin to give some real direction and guidance on how to answer them,” he said.
Regarding Monday’s professional development day, Cascone said he expects to clarify any questions that staff members have at that time.
A survey has been distributed to faculty members in order to gauge their current readiness and capacity to manage their lessons via Google Classroom so that the district can develop a plan for how the teachers can use their online tools for virtual education.
The superintendent also addressed public concerns about scheduled field trips and other large gatherings within school buildings, stating that all events will be evaluated on a “case by case basis for the time being.”
“We’re going to make our decisions based upon the information we have, and we’re not going to make them sooner than we need to or than we’re advised or directed to do,” said Cascone.
According to state directive, Cascone announced that West Orange students who receive free and reduced breakfast and lunch would still receive food in the event of school closings. However, he said, the district is still working out the details of how it would distribute food to students while respecting the conditions of a potential quarantine.
For the time being, the district awaits information from the New Jersey Coronavirus Task Force before being moved to issue any sweeping directives or restrictions for the West Orange school district.
Several WOBOE members, including Gary Rothstein and Cheryl Merklinger, thanked the community for remaining calm during this time.
WOBOE Vice President Terry Trigg-Scales reflected on the fact that although the state and the district have never gone through a crisis to this extent, the district did face similar questions during Superstorm Sandy.
“From day to day, the situation is fluid,” she said. “And a week from now, things may look very different than they do today.”
The next WOBOE meeting will take place at West Orange High School on Thursday, March 19 at 7:30 p.m.