WEST ORANGE, N.J. – During Monday’s West Orange Board of Education meeting, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Scott Cascone gave an update regarding reopening following the newly released CDC guidelines that allow students of all grade levels to sit in classrooms with 3 feet of social distance instead of 6 feet.
Since starting on-site instruction last month, Cascone said that the cohort models at the middle and high school levels did not allow for efficient use of space because classrooms were not at “max occupancy” even with 6 feet of social distance.
As a result, the superintendent explained that the district is currently in a phase where it is offering students who need it additional time on-site. This includes special education students, basic skills and Tier 3 intervention students, ESL students, and other groups of students who in previous years would have been considered for retention, including those demonstrating high chronic absenteeism, according to Cascone.
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At the same time, Cascone explained that if the cohorts were filled, those students would also benefit from “social interaction and sense of community, which is a big part of why they’re in school in the first place.”
In terms of combining cohorts to allow more students on-site, the superintendent mentioned that the West Orange High School was one place where that would start happening on April 19, when students would be back in brick and mortar classrooms.
However, Cascone explained during the meeting that even though CDC guidelines have changed, New Jersey officials have yet to change the rules to align with federal rules.
Cascone continued that since CDC guidelines now run counter to the guidelines issued in The Road Back handbook, any changes to district operations should be forwarded to the Essex County Superintendent of Schools and the NJ Department of Education.
As of Wednesday, in a letter to the community, the superintendent announced that the New Jersey Department of Health has released revised guidelines in alignment with the CDC.
An update with prospective changes in scheduling will be released on April 5.
In addition, Cascone said that the district will also propose the use of over 6,000 barriers in its revised reopening plan, which is tentatively expected to be submitted by May 1.
In terms of expanding time onsite for students to Fridays, Cascone said that after hearing from some in the community, he was initially in favor of moving forward with an alternating 3-day and 2-day model, but after speaking with building principals he changed his mind.
Because Fridays are currently being used to serve various student populations both virtually and in-person, moving those services to the rest of the week would cause students to miss instructional time during the week.
Currently, the district offers a host of different services on Friday including occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech, basic skills, Tier 3 intervention, small group instruction, labs, instrumental lessons, gifted instruction, enrichment and referral services.
Cascone added that making any changes to extend the synchronous school day to Fridays, or even to add additional activities in the afternoon, would be disruptive to students at this point in the school year.
In response, board member Cheryl Merklinger claimed that the district keeps “moving the goalposts” and making excuses about why guidelines cannot be put in place.
Cascone replied that he has kept the goalposts steady based on the guidelines which were provided to him by the state and that changes cannot be done at his discretion. He continued that any decisions that he made are to not only protect the board from liability but also to protect students and staff from undue risk.
Merklinger added that more needed to be done for students with insufficient class instruction on Fridays, explaining that many parents, especially those of younger students, reached out to say that their child was finished with the school day in 30 minutes.
Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Eveny de Mendez explained that all content areas should give work that requires at least 30 minutes to complete, but according to several parents in attendance, this was not the case.
“If a half an hour of work is done on Friday, that’s a lot,” said Laura Noesner, who has a daughter in the district. “And that’s total, not for each subject area.”
She also asked why more students, like her daughter, couldn’t be challenged more because they face boredom during the day.
Lauren Price Stierman agreed, saying that she was disappointed that “middle-of-the-road” students like her son were getting lost.
“I just think that there’s time for them to be added,” she said.
Another West Orange parent Katie Witzig wondered if average students were missing out on opportunities because Fridays were reserved for a small population of students.
Carla Vale, a parent and public service worker asked for more transparency from the superintendent.
“I think we need to start getting a little bit more transparency as to what data is actually being reviewed locally, by our Department of Health, how this information is being translated or interpreted by Dr. Cascone and others on the board that is leading to these decisions being made.”
Not wanting to discount the experiences brought up by several parents during public comment, Cascone reviewed the data from a survey with 702 responses that asked parents at the middle and high school level about their experiences with remote learning.
One question, which asked if students were thriving with remote learning had 202 agree, 108 strongly agree, 99 were neutral, 32 disagreed, and 8 strongly disagreed.
Similarly, at the elementary level, data from a survey administered in December with 1,713 responses showed that 65.9 percent felt virtual schooling was just right, 10.8 percent felt it was too long and 23.3 percent said it was a light day.
“And it’s not to say that 23.3% is not valuable,” Cascone said, “but I just present this data, as just a counter perspective, to illustrate that there are ample individuals, ample parents who have ample students who were finding the experience to be positive.”
Cascone added that another survey will be administered in the future asking parents about their experience with the current schedule and said that more will be done in the future to provide more offerings to students.
“I can say publicly that I’m certainly not acting below board for ulterior motives,” Cascone said. “I’m simply trying to find a way to balance the perspectives and the needs and the wants of a community with very diverse thought in a way that is not only safe but is also not going to tear this community apart in the process.”
“I just wanted to say to the public, this has been very difficult,” Board President Terry Trigg-Scales said. “We’re making very difficult decisions, not excuses as we look at all of the criteria for making decisions as far as opening and hybrid and the timeline.”
“We support Dr. Cascone. He is being cautious. He is being concerned. And I think that the district is definitely moving in the right direction.”