Parents upset with SOMSD distance-learning plan

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education passed a distance-learning plan for the rest of the school year that will also be used in the event that schools are not able to reopen in the fall at its May 18 virtual meeting, with no requirement that livestreamed instruction be provided to students. The plan passed with a vote of 6–2; BOE members Anthony Mazzocchi and Johanna Wright voted against the plan and Kamal Zubieta abstained.

According to the plan, the district recommends that teachers use prerecorded lessons when classes are scheduled. If a teacher chooses to host live lessons, they must record it and upload it to Google Classroom so students who could not attend the live lesson can watch later. The 37-page plan also addresses special education, ELL students, meal delivery and facilities, but the comments from the public and most of the board’s discussion focused on classes.

A letter to the BOE written by Nathan Marinoff and signed by many other parents in the district was read during the public-comment portion of the meeting by Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor. There were 17 questions raised in the letter, 11 of which Taylor read before the allotted four minutes to speak ran out.

“We are confused and increasingly concerned by the failure of South Orange–Maplewood School District to institute virtual remote instruction by the school district’s teachers during the pandemic,” Marinoff wrote. “Comparably sized neighboring districts, including East Orange, Livingston, Millburn, Summit and Verona, have implemented comprehensive plans that include daily live video instruction by teachers for their students. What specific plan does the district have to resume direct instruction and meaningful individual feedback by their teachers during the time schools are closed? Dr. Taylor has instructed that the district recommend that teachers engage with classes online and that if teachers choose to do live lessons that is their choice. Why is this only a recommendation and a choice of the teachers?”

After the meeting, Marinoff started a petition addressing the New Jersey Department of Education and asking them to reject the plan and “provide direct oversight to ensure that an appropriate school closure plan is developed.” As of May 25, nearly 1,400 people had signed it.

Abigail Murtagh, the parent of a student at Marshall Elementary School, said during public comment through Taylor reading her message that math lessons have been less personalized than reading and writing lessons during home instruction.

“Instead, students are receiving links to Brainpop and YouTube videos. This is a stark contrast to reading and writing lessons, which are created and recorded by teachers,” Murtagh wrote. “These lessons are amazing. They are tailored to our students and lead to specific learning outcomes. Brainpop and YouTube videos provide none of this. They are generic, cannot fit the specific students or be adjusted if students need more or different instruction. There is no conversation in these videos, no opportunities for active learning and no human connection. While the material of school is so important, I think even more important, especially at the elementary level, is the connection to people our students are missing.”

She added that she doesn’t expect a change this school year, but the district should improve the lessons over the summer in the event that schools are not able to reopen in September.

Taylor said during the meeting that the reason live instruction is not a required part of the plan is because of extenuating circumstances that both students and teachers are facing during the pandemic, but parent Rachel Fisher disagreed during public comment.

“We think that citing equity as a reason to withhold meeting the need of special education children is a false binary and counterproductive,” she wrote. “Equity means providing each child with what they need while prioritizing those who need the most. The district has done impressive work providing food to those who need it and providing technology to those who need it. We firmly believe that with continued support every family in the district would make it a priority to access distance learning instruction if it were offered flexibly, live and recorded, depending on subject matter, age group and special education classification.”

In his comments during the discussion of the plan, Taylor again said it’s challenging to provide live instruction for every class.

“There are some who believe that teachers should provide live direction to their students every day, even on a schedule similar to when they were in school,” he said. “What we’ve tried to help understand is that equity and access speaks to our students and our families, but it is also understanding of the challenges that our educators experience. We’re looking at the variety of their home circumstances, and the variety of their expertise when it comes to being able to provide their instruction that way. There’s a reason why things are different in different districts. The populations are different, the demographics are different, the equipment and the capabilities are different, the connectivity is different. For me, I’m going to always recommend a conservative approach that will provide all we can for our students, but also be understanding that we’re in an emergency circumstance right now and the homes of all of our students are different, as are the homes of all of our instructors.”

The board’s student representative and Columbia High School junior Lily Forman said that in talking with other students, she’s found that live instruction has been the most effective.

“I know that’s not always possible depending on teacher circumstances and things like that, and obviously recording the videos is really important to make sure that everyone can access them, but I think that’s a point that’s been pretty common throughout my discussions with students,” she said at the meeting. “Right now what I’ve heard is more communication with both teachers and students about what’s being expected of both of them would be helpful, so that there’s more clarity on both ends. Students don’t really know what they should be advocating for for themselves, because they don’t know what’s expected of teachers. I think making sure that whenever communications go out to teachers about what’s being expected of them, students should get a similar version.”

BOE member Anthony Mazzocchi, who voted against the plan, said he thought the distance learning plan could be better.

“I think we have to be careful not to contort the ‘what’ because the ‘how’ has to change a little bit,” Mazzocchi said at the meeting. “I want to urge us to consider synchronous learning as well as asynchronous, for the human connection that people so dearly need and I know we care so much about here in the district. Just because a plan checks the boxes doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, and the teaching and learning piece I’m very much struggling with. I hope we have a moment before the end of the school year where we can share what’s worked and what hasn’t and get a lot of people on the same page.”