WEST ORANGE, NJ – In keeping with social distancing guidelines created to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, Thursday’s West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting spared no ounce of caution ensuring that each member of board, the superintendent and the video recording crew were distanced at least six feet apart from each other.
Precautions were also taken for members of the public, who were asked to sit at least 10 seats away from the board in the West Orange High School (WOHS) auditorium with gloves, wipes and N95 respirator masks offered to those who wanted them.
Addressing the public, Superintendent of West Orange Schools Dr. J. Scott Cascone acknowledged that although it is no longer “common for public meetings to still occur,” the administration still opted to hold the meeting in person in order provide an update on the rollout of the newly created e-learning platform. He noted, however, that he would consider utilizing a live-streaming format for subsequent meetings.
During the meeting, Dr. Cascone explained that although there were concerns about moving spring break up to the week of March 16, it ensured that ample time was given to members of the administration who were tasked with planning the logistics behind food services, technology, and instruction.
“I felt it incumbent upon me, as the superintendent of schools, […] that before we thrust our students and our staff and community into that environment […] that we were prepared as we possibly could be,” he said.
He added that information has been distributed to parents and students that includes guidelines and resources needed as the students get used to working on the new E-Learning Platform, which was created with the help of Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Eveny de Mendez as well as a “large team of teachers and administrators who have literally been working around the clock” so that the virtual platform will be ready to be used by students and staff.
From a technological standpoint, Cascone acknowledged that this plan will only work if all students have access to a computer and Internet.
After distributing a survey to families in order to gauge their technological needs last week, approximately 1,500 households—accounting for more than 2,000 students—did not respond, according to the superintendent. However, Cascone said he hoped to have more definitive information by the time the remote learning plan is implemented on March 23.
In terms of food services, it was announced on March 18 that lunch and breakfast for the following day would be distributed at each elementary school via “drive-through” services between the hours of 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. For parents who are unable to come between those hours, Cascone reiterated that additional parcels will be distributed by either a security guard or another staff member until 4 p.m.
In the wake of Gov. Phil Murphy’s state mandate restricting travel and operations to only essential businesses and employees, Dr. Cascone announced that parents will receive Chromebooks in the same manner as food pick up beginning on Tuesday, March 24 while “exercising all the protocol and precautions” to keep staff and visitors safe.
He also assured that after communicating with local officials, it was determined that West Orange families will still be able to visit pickup sites “until such time that is not the case.”
In the event that food needs to be delivered to West Orange homes individually, Cascone said the district is developing a plan that “would be a monumental undertaking,” but noted that he believes the capacity is there.
He added that students will not be penalized if they do not have access to a Chromebook or Internet during the first week of the e-learning launch.
There will also be a hotline system available for services including food, technology and student counseling on the district website, with bilingual options and live operators to direct questions to the appropriate personnel.
In terms of instruction, Cascone said that Monday will be considered a “Virtual Back to School Day”—or, in other words, a soft opening that will “provide an opportunity for students and parents and our staff to have a sandbox day […] during which they’ll be able to get acquainted with where their teacher’s pages are.”
Because this week was considered spring break for the West Orange district, Cascone mentioned that some teachers’ pages still need to be refined, but that a team of more than 20 staff members have been hard at work all week to ensure a smooth reopening on Tuesday, March 24.
As a consolation, Cascone added that there will still technically be a spring break—or at least a long weekend—in April, beginning with an early dismissal on Wednesday, April 8. School will be closed on Thursday, April 9 for those celebrating Passover as well as on Friday, April 10 for those celebrating Good Friday.
WOBOE Vice President Terry Trigg-Scales expressed that the district is making “footprints in virgin sand” as it feels its way around these unprecedented circumstances. However, she also acknowledged that the decision to move spring break to this week was “absolutely brilliant.”
Board member Gary Rothstein praised the superintendent for his “strong leadership” during this time. As a parent, he expressed gratitude for being part of a school district that he said looks out for its students and ensures that basic and educational needs are met.
Board member Cheryl Merklinger thanked the numerous restaurants and other small businesses in West Orange—including Fortissimo’s, Pepe’s BBQ, Harper’s Café and others—that have helped students and families with their food needs over the last week.
Cascone also acknowledged Cynthia Cumming, communications director for the district and director of the West Orange Holy Trinity Food Pantry, for her efforts in helping families in need.
The next WOBOE meeting is slated tentatively for April 6 at 7:30 p.m.