WEST ORANGE, NJ. — With less three weeks left until the end of July to submit a plan to the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), West Orange Public Schools Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone walked the public through the thought process behind opening schools in September.
The superintendent's plan started with "The Road Back," a brochure published by the NJDOE two weeks ago which outlines important details to reopen schools including policy implications and guidelines for social distancing in schools.
Cascone explained that with the help of district administrators, members from the WOEA, and other stakeholders within the district, the plan would be to eventually create specific, school-based pandemic response groups, reopening teams, and subcommittees for other parts of the plan to reopen.
Then, starting in early August, parents will be made aware of any specifics.
In terms of models, the superintendent said that there are many ideas that are being considered by this district and others, but they remain theoretical because of logistical and financial issues.
Ideally, the best model would be one that can transition quickly between going exclusively virtual and 100 percent on-site without any issues, Cascone said.
When considering an exclusively virtual school day, especially for parents who do not want to send their children back to school, Cascone said that the district would need to "apply lessons learned from the closures from the past school year" to enhance content and to offer a "consistently engaging" and more structured experience for students.
On the other hand, when considering that some parents may want their children to have a physical on-site school day, Cascone said that it would serve various purposes, which would be difficult to deliver in a virtual setting.
"One of them obviously is instruction and education," Cascone said. "But we also know that our buildings can serve other purposes for students, namely the whole social emotional piece, socialization, counseling, college counseling [and] advisement, extracurricular activities, and possibly athletics.
He continued that the brochure explains that the district should place a "critical eye" on student populations that are in the greatest need of on-site time. This is important because parents of the special education population shared that they had encountered significant challenges. Other populations include ESL students and students who are operating at tier three of the district’s basic skills or intervention program and are operating up to three grades below level.
“We recognize that those students are in need of even perhaps greater time on-site and the [Road Back] manual gives us the directive to really see to that accommodation in our plan,” Cascone said.
He added that as parents go back to work, if students are not in school on-site on a daily basis, there are plans for the district to partner with the local YMCA to offer all-day-care programs in potentially all of the elementary schools. The program will begin to be marketed to parents in August and the district is prepared to partially subsidize the program for parents in need of financial assistance. The program will also be offered staff members.
Cascone also shared a number of logistical issues which need to be resolved before month’s end, including the potential need to displace classrooms in order to place students in isolation in a well-ventilated area instead of the nurse’s office, dealing with transportation routes, and preparing for certificated staff members who may not be able to service students on-site because of pre-existing conditions.
“I can tell you that the model we’re looking at right now does provide weekly opportunities for all students to be in school. And it does provide additional time on-site for students that are at the greatest risk,” Cascone said.
Currently, the district is trying to figure out busing cohorts and classroom capacities, but more details will be provided to the public as time goes on.
Also, during the meeting Athletic Director Ron Bligh and Supervisor of Visual Performing Arts Louis Quagliato gave updates about the reopening of the athletics and marching band programs.
While scholastic sports plan to reopen on Monday, July 13, marching band will start on July 20.
Following NJSIAA guidelines students will need to fill out forms prior to coming into practice and then for every subsequent practice. Students will also be pre-screened for symptoms before practice which will be outdoors for both programs.
Both programs expect their practices to last 90 minutes, for a minimum of once a week, but marching band is scheduled to have three hour rehearsals to take care of preparations and preliminary rehearsal items.
Bligh went into further detail explaining that the purpose of the first phase is to get students back into peak physical condition, but in order to ensure everyone’s safety besides wearing masks, students will be kept in groups of 10 to promote social distancing and running times will be staggered to prevent students from running into respiratory droplets or mists. Students will be allowed to remove their masks while doing intense aerobic exercise.
In the case of if a student has a fever of at least 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, they will be sent home and come back when cleared by the school physician Dr. Mike Kelly.
Even though there is much uncertainty about the state of athletics and even if the high school teams will be allowed to compete outside of Essex County, Bligh says phase one is a good first step to get students back to a sense of normalcy.
The WOBOE will have a special policy workshop on July 15 and an upcoming regular meeting on July 20 at 7:30 p.m.