Essex County superintendents respond to news of continued school closures

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Teachers and students were holding out hope that they would be able to return to school and some semblance of normalcy before June, but on May 4 Gov. Phil Murphy announced that New Jersey schools would remain closed for the remainder of the school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Distance learning will continue through at least the end of this academic year, and a committee of education stakeholders will explore how schools should move forward if the pandemic lasts into the 2020–2021 school year, as well as approaches for safely reopening schools in the future.

In the meantime, Essex County school districts are soldiering on and determining how to close out the current year, which has been derailed by the pandemic. 

West Orange Superintendent of Schools Scott Cascone wasn’t surprised when Murphy’s announcement came.

“I think it became increasingly clear that that was the direction they were going to go,” he said in a phone interview on May 8. “We already had to make some decisions about academics and adjusting the beginning of the last marking period. Now it’s brought up how to close the year. We have to figure out how to reach students who are in possession of school property.”

West Orange educators are also working on a plan for allowing students to collect belongings they had left in school buildings. Middle and high school students have lockers filled with items they didn’t bring home in March when schools closed for what they thought would be two weeks. Students who are graduating from West Orange High School won’t be returning to the district after they take their last final and can’t leave anything in the building. The same issue applies to elementary school students moving on to Edison Middle School, EMS students who will start seventh grade at either Liberty or Roosevelt middle school, and LMS and RMS students who will enter high school next school year.

Aside from cleaning out desks and lockers, WOHS seniors are ending their time in the district without a graduation ceremony — at least at the time it was supposed to take place. Cascone said Codey Arena has been booked for a date in late July in case they are able to have their normal celebration, but it’s too soon to tell whether that will be possible.

“How do we make up for that loss?” Cascone said. “The state has yet to provide guidance, but we’re keeping the door open to having it in-person in late July. We’re also planning something virtual. We want to bring momentary closure, but we also need to bring official closure. If we’re able to do something more personal, we will.”

Orange School District Superintendent Gerald Fitzhugh is thinking about the same thing. The district is planning a virtual graduation ceremony for Orange High School seniors, in addition to purchasing lawn signs for every one of them to display in front of their homes.

“I don’t want them to not have an experience,” Fitzhugh said in a phone interview on May 11. “We want them to have some kind of memento of their time here.”

And, like West Orange, Orange is coming up with a plan for students and teachers to retrieve anything they left in the school buildings.

“The most important thing is keeping everyone safe,” Fitzhugh said. “Each person can go in and get what they need for 15 minutes, then the next person can go in. We’ll be cleaning in between.”

The superintendents in the county have been working together on plans for their respective schools and sharing ideas, and Glen Ridge Superintendent Dirk Phillips said his district is also planning on holding virtual graduation ceremonies with a “just in case” date of July 23 for an in-person graduation for Glen Ridge High School’s Class of 2020.

“Our sixth-graders usually have their graduation party and class trip at the end of the year,” Phillips said in a phone interview on May 11. “We’ll see if we can have that party over the summer, and we’re moving the trip to seventh grade. They’ll have a virtual promotion to move to the high school, which is seven to 12.”

But he knows that graduating on the computer is not the same as graduating while sitting next to friends.

“I’ve heard from teachers and seniors and know how disappointed they are,” Phillips said. “We certainly understand. A lot of life events have been lost. We’re trying to find other ways to celebrate them, and everyone is doing the best possible job they can.”

South Orange–Maplewood Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor and the district administration have been including students in communication from the central office. There are no firm plans yet for Columbia High School, South Orange Middle School or Maplewood Middle School graduation ceremonies.

“We include our high school students in many communications that we send through our platforms. As young leaders we want them to be empowered and to also feel included in our decisions. We are working with our educators and mental health specialists to provide support to our students,” Taylor said in an email on May 9. “We are working with our school leaders and stakeholders to develop plans that are safe and in compliance with our governor’s directives. We are also thankful for the colleagues that we have in other districts that we can share ideas and thoughts with around this unprecedented challenge.”

Aside from typical end of the year events that have been either postponed or moved online, school districts are now trying to figure out how summer programs will be held. There are many unanswered questions about what the summer months will look like in New Jersey and around the rest of the country.

“You always have option A and option B,” Fitzhugh said. “A virtual summer school and brick-and-mortar one where they go back as normal are the options. We’re trying to put all of that together. We also have visual and performing arts programs that I don’t want the pandemic to stop. I don’t want the pandemic slide in general. We already know we’re going to adjust curriculum to account for that.”

Taylor is on the same page as Fitzhugh about summer programs.

“It is too early to share firm plans. But I can say that we are planning for the possibility of both a virtual and traditional methodology. We have advertised instructional positions for the summer but we are still in the planning stages,” he said. “Our plans are focused on being prepared to offer highly effective instruction that is both rigorous and engaging yet still mindful of the trauma that we as a society will be recovering from. We want to continue to build our capacity so that we can switch between traditional and virtual distance learning effortlessly if needed in the future.”

Some educators are thinking even further down the line and into September, but Cascone said it’s still too early to know what a school day will look like when buildings are allowed to reopen.

“What I imagine is some kind of social distancing,” he said. “But it’s not practical for a kindergartener to be wearing a mask all day. We probably would not be able to have the whole school population there at once. There would be a virtual piece. Barring a miraculous scientific turnaround, I imagine it will be something like that.”

Bloomfield Superintendent of Schools Sal Goncalves did not return a request for comment by press time on May 12. However, in a letter to the school community on May 7, he and Assistant Superintendent Joe Fleres said the district is planning virtual graduation ceremonies.

“On a continuing basis, administration reviews results from our weekly surveys in order to modify our virtual learning plan to provide assurances that our alternate platform replicates the classroom experience to the degree practical,” the letter read. “As we compose this letter, we are actively engaged in providing refinements to our plan and making certain that we meet our equally important, albeit symbolic, responsibilities for our learners; this includes preparation for virtual promotion and commencement ceremonies! To this end, please be on the lookout for upcoming communications from central office, including logistical information pertaining to the return of student belongings as well as the protocols to confirm that district-issued technology devices are properly collected, updated and serviced.”

In addition, Bloomfield is developing alternative plans for its summer programs.

East Orange Superintendent of Schools Kevin West and Irvington Superintendent of Schools Neely Hackett did not respond to requests for comment by press time on May 12.