WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange Superintendent of Schools Scott Cascone announced that the district would delay the implementation of its hybrid learning plan, pushing back the reopening of the school buildings indefinitely, in a letter to the community on Nov. 5. Originally scheduled to open the buildings on Nov. 9, Cascone cited the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and rising cases of the virus in the state as reasons the district would not begin in-person instruction as planned.
Cascone said he met with the West Orange Office of Emergency Management, Department of Health and district physician Michael Kelly last week. All of the health officials at the meeting advised against opening the school buildings.
“The focus of the conversation was the advisability of substantially increasing the occupancy of indoor facilities, the district’s schools, contemporaneously with a significant rise in cases in the town and without additional time to assess the degree to which this uptick is simply a ‘flash in the pan’ or the beginning of a more prolonged second wave,” Cascone wrote in the letter on Nov. 5.
Instead, the virtual learning model will continue. According to Cascone, the schedule will be revised to allow for more live instruction.
“Plans are underway to modify the daily schedules to afford students additional live instruction. This ‘winter virtual’ schedule will commence at the beginning of the second marking period/trimester,” he said. “An increased emphasis will be placed on social-emotional supports, including opportunities for socialization either virtual and/or in-person when safe to do so, as well as fostering a higher level of student engagement and interaction within the virtual learning platform.”
The superintendent also said confirmed cases of the virus will be tracked on a weekly basis to assess risk level and the feasibility of beginning the hybrid model, and current operation in the district will continue, with an effort to “scale up on the introduction of additional, smaller cohorts of specialized populations and students in need of on-site supports.”
The BOE had a special meeting on Nov. 4, at which Cascone and the board discussed the possibility of reopening. West Orange senior public health nurse Susan Iovino, chief environmental health specialist Michael Fonzino and Kelly were all at the meeting.
“When we start to gather in large groups, and we begin to get closer in space, we become closer contacts,” Iovino said at the meeting. “As we look at household contacts moving about their everyday business, being in the same classroom together, utilizing the same bathrooms, that risk increases. So when we start seeing a household of five with three individuals in the household get sick, we have to say, ‘When we are closer together, what is the infectious rate? How is the virus moving from person to person quickly?’”
The virus is spreading even in controlled environments, according to Iovino.
“It’s concerning to watch the spread in clusters,” she said. “Once we get into a school system, what’s concerning again is clusters. Clusters in classrooms, clusters among teachers. There are a lot of different venues there for clusters to occur.”
Kelly agreed with Iovino when he spoke at the meeting and explained that, even while the mortality rate at hospitals has dropped, people who test positive for the virus are getting sicker more quickly.
“What I’m seeing is people are more symptomatic,” he said. “The reason we’re seeing less mortality in the hospital is, as medical professionals, we’ve gotten much better at treating it. We have more tools to use and we have better protocols. I have many concerns about bringing people back into a school building with close contact at a time when we may be on the uptick of the second wave of the pandemic.”
Also taken into account when making the decision not to reopen was the fact that a larger number of school-aged children have been testing positive for the virus in recent weeks than in the spring.
“We really weren’t seeing a lot of children affected by it. If we remember early on, we were glad that children weren’t being affected when we first started seeing this virus,” Iovino said. “Now we are seeing, not only here but in our surrounding communities, we are seeing a lot of children being affected by the virus. Being diagnosed then makes them a carrier, and if they’re not quarantining, if they’re not isolating, which is difficult with children, the spread within the household and the spread of the virus is much more rapid.”
On Nov. 8, Cascone announced in a letter to the community that two cases of the virus were confirmed at West Orange High School, one case at Liberty Middle School and one case at Kelly Elementary School.
The reopening of district schools has been postponed indefinitely; no date to return has been announced.