WEST ORANGE, NJ — The one-day school closure initially scheduled for Monday, March 16 at West Orange Public Schools for the purpose of acquainting teachers with the e-learning platform has been moved to Friday, March 13. As of Thursday night, however, the district has yet to decide whether to close for an extended period.
Although neighboring districts such as Livingston, East Hanover and others have already made the decision to close their schools for at least two weeks beginning on Monday in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus COVID-19, the West Orange district has acknowledged the likelihood of this eventuality, but is waiting for better directive from the state, according to Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone.
“Obviously, it’s an extremely dynamic day in our state today, it’s an extremely dynamic day in our community, and we know already that a number of school districts have notified their communities that they are going to be closing long-term,” he said. “At this moment, although it is becoming increasingly likely, we have not made that decision at this point in time…
“On March 2, we received a memorandum from the state department of education that referred to the statute which allows school districts to offer tele-schooling in lieu of instructional days in the case of a public health crisis; and what it says is, is that that is permissible only when the school district has been directed by the state department of health or the health department of a local jurisdiction to close. We have not received that; in fact, to the best of my knowledge, none of the districts that have already issued this two-week closing have been directed.”
Cascone also mentioned that Gov. Phil Murphy issued a decree recommending that municipalities cancel any events involving 250 people or more, but not specifically mandate townships to do so.
Although the district is currently putting pressure on the county and state to “reconcile the language being used” in the statute, Cascone said the district will not announce a long-term closure until the issue is clarified. He expressed confidence that the conversations being held on Friday will help the district determine its immediate and long-term path moving forward.
“We’re in a good place,” he said on Thursday night. “Tomorrow, our students will not be in our facilities, our staff will be there and will be assembled in groups far smaller than 250, and we have a meeting with the joint-task force of our West Orange Township partners, including the department of health, with whom I expect to speak about this very topic of consultation versus directive.
“But let me be perfectly clear: even if we do not get clarity, we will make the decision which is in the best interest of our school district and of our students, and we will be prepared to do that.”
Regarding the decision to reschedule the professional development day, Cascone said he “thought this was prudent based upon the dynamic nature of the situation with COVID-19 and the possibility of impending closures.”
Cascone explained that as he saw the situation “rapidly evolving,” he felt it necessary to shift the professional development day to Friday to avoid being unable hold it on Monday in the event that the district is ordered to close.
The superintendent noted in a message to the community that more than 40 staff members, including turn-key trainers, came together on Thursday afternoon to discuss the training that will be delivered to the faculty at-large on Friday in order to “prepare and equip them to be able to deliver an e-learning and tele-school model” for West Orange students.
He also acknowledged that the district continues to make every effort to address public concerns about the potential closure, including concerns about students who typically receive breakfast and lunch through the school system and students who do not have access to computers and/or Internet at home.
“We continue to button up our plans both for the providing of hardcopy resources as well as our food services,” he said. “Our plan at this juncture is to establish [mobile commissaries] at each of the elementary schools and put out advisories and communications to our community as to when food can be retrieved by community members.”
The superintendent also had a heartfelt message for West Orange High School seniors, encouraging them to “believe and have faith in the fact that every situation—regardless of what it may be, negative or adverse—happens to us individually and as a collective for a reason.”
“There is a larger, higher purpose for why we’re being put through this, and we will come out of it stronger, better and more unified than before,” he said. “And for you, as seniors, this experience will forge who you are moving forward into your life. Try and look on the bright side of things and see the opportunity that presents itself in this situation.”
To the community at-large, Cascone encouraged all families to think practically and start planning ahead for the next several weeks as the situation continues to develop.
More information will be shared as it becomes available.