WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education discussed the path back to reopening schools in the fall at its July 20 meeting. The health and safety of students and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic is the top priority, and the school population will not all return to in-person instruction at the same time. The plan discussed at the meeting was a draft, leaving open the possibility of changes before September.
In a presentation at the meeting, the plan specified that students who are most in need of in-person learning will be prioritized; that group includes students with disabilities, English language learners, homeless youth and low-income students. All models of West Orange’s return to school will be dependent on the number of available staff for in-person instruction. A survey was sent to the staff on July 7.
Teachers will be expected to report to their assigned buildings each day to teach either in person or virtually. There will be a focus on livestream instruction and virtual instruction and the integration of social-emotional learning.
“When we’re thinking about the health and safety of our students, we understand as a district and as a staff that our students must remain the No. 1 priority,” Assistant Superintendent Eveny de Mendez said at the meeting. “That’s how we are guiding all of our decisions across our policy, our social distancing and our classroom protocols to include the social and emotional well-being of students and staff.”
Students from elementary school through high school can take the bus, and social distancing will be required on transportation. Students must wear masks and sit one person per seat, which limits capacity to 21 students per bus.
There are many other social-distancing measures as well. All classrooms used must comply with social-distancing standards “to the maximum extent practicable.” All staff members must wear face coverings unless it will impede their health. In classrooms where social distancing is possible, students will be permitted to remove their face coverings while sitting at their desks but should wear them when moving around the room.
If maintaining 6 feet of social distancing is not possible for students or staff while waiting in line to enter or exit a building, masks are required. In classrooms, the district is suggesting physical guides, such as tape on the floors and signs on the walls to help maintain social distancing. Desks will be turned to face the same direction and students will sit on only one side of a table, spaced apart.
According to the presentation, a plan for hybrid learning at the Betty Maddalena Early Learning Center is still under consideration.
“The model we use is a play-based model, so there’s a lot of interactive play and manipulatives, all of which would be very difficult if not impossible to do while operating within the social-distance guidelines,” Superintendent Scott Cascone said at the meeting. “We’re continuing to look at what is the best way to continue to serve these little ones.”
For general education students in kindergarten through fifth grade, a hybrid model is also being considered. In-person learning would be twice a week for four hours, in two rotating cohorts. Livestream virtual instruction would be three times per week. Special education students would be at school two to three times per week and English language learners would be there three to four times a week.
At the middle and high school level, there would be four rotating cohorts, with 25 percent of the student population in the building at a time. Students would be in school one day per week. Considerations being accounted for in the plan include changing classes, delivering lunch and taking attendance.
Special education students will be provided with in-person instruction at a minimum of twice per week.
“We are examining social-distancing requirements and how to best serve students who may experience difficulty exhibiting behaviors that are stated as reducing the spread of COVID-19,” the presentation stated. “For example: Students who require close in-person contact to navigate throughout the school day, students who have a history of behaviors including, but not limited to physical behaviors — possibly resulting in the use of physical restraint — and/or biting/spitting.”
The next steps, according to the district, include receiving feedback on the plan, developing curriculum with supervisors and teachers, developing preschool framework, and preparing classrooms for livestreaming.
“Our approach has been really to kind of move forward deliberately, while at the same time not offering things that we can’t necessarily provide within our fiscal and our logistic constraints,” Cascone said.