WEST ORANGE, NJ — In a letter sent to West Orange School District students, staff and parents on Monday, Nov. 2, Superintendent Scott Cascone said he is reconsidering the reopening of district school buildings for hybrid learning, as was originally planned, on Monday, Nov. 9. He cited the increasing number of COVID-19 cases West Orange has reported since Thursday, Oct. 1, in addition to several schools having to close to staff and special education students. In the last several months, Washington Elementary School and the district’s transportation department have closed as a result of positive coronavirus tests; more recently, staff members from Redwood Elementary School, Kelly Elementary School and St. Cloud Elementary School have had to quarantine.
In the letter, Cascone said he met with the West Orange Office of Emergency Management, the health department, Mayor Robert Parisi, school district physician Michael Kelly and Board of Education President Ken Alper.
“First, I wanted to gain a better understanding from the health and medical workers on the front lines of the current status of the public health situation,” he said in the letter. “Second, I wanted to ask them directly, and from their various perspectives, as to whether they concurred with the position of the Office of Emergency Management.” The OEM said it is in favor of further delaying a hybrid plan.
Cascone listed nine takeaways he had from the meeting, which included information about transmission rates, the percentage of people with the virus who are school-age children and the impact a second wave of the virus would have on district staff.
“Cases are clustering in homes, with infections being passed between parents and children. This was noted by the West Orange Health Department as a significant concern, as it relates to infections being transferred to schools,” he said. “Meeting participants referred, on a number of occasions, to ‘COVID fatigue,’ meaning the loosening of people’s own precautions and care, not only relative to their own behavior but that which they are allowing their children to do, whether it be physical activities like sports, birthday parties, sleepovers and the like. This further increases the chances that students will bring the virus into schools.”
According to Cascone, all of the medical and public health authorities at the meeting advised that moving forward with the hybrid model would not be in the district’s best interest, since many people would have to be in the school buildings at the same time. Kelly recommended in writing that Cascone delay the reopening of schools.
“The administration will be continuing to confer with these authorities and monitor the trend of cases in the next 48 hours,” Cascone said. “At the special public meeting of the Board of Education on Nov. 4, public health and medical authorities will be invited to the meeting to engage in a public discussion with the board about this. This will provide our public an opportunity to hear the very same commentary and recommendations which I have been provided.”
Cascone said in the letter that he would make a final decision by Thursday, Nov. 5, at 8 a.m. The special BOE meeting and his decision occurred after press time on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
At the BOE meeting on Monday, Oct. 26, Cascone reported the results of a survey in which families could opt out of hybrid learning in favor of remaining all virtual; 2,964 students chose not to return to the school buildings. More than 1,000 of the opt-outs were West Orange High School students.
Residents and teachers in the district spoke at the meeting on Monday, Oct. 26, during public comment, both in favor of the hybrid plan and against it. Molly Eisen, a special education teacher at Edison Middle School, said the model would disrupt the current online schedule.
“We have all worked hard to create routines and community, despite having not met face to face,” Eisen said. “My students are becoming more confident and comfortable in my virtual classroom by the day, and I truly fear that hybrid learning will set back the progress that we have already made. Switching to hybrid now and disrupting the schedules and routines everyone has worked so hard to put in place and get used to, for at most, four half days a month, seems like a lot of risk with very little reward.”
Kevin Brady, a resident in town, said he has three children in elementary school and would be comfortable with them returning to the school building.
“I really commend our district for all the great work that they’ve done so far to keep us on track for in-person learning,” he said. “We’ve seen schools have proven that it’s not only possible to succeed at this but to thrive if we do the right things. I’m really encouraged by the fact that everybody is going to be masked. We’re talking about kids being resilient when we went with virtual, and I think they’ll be just as resilient when they switch to the hybrid model.”