West Orange students to begin school year virtually

West Orange Superintendent of Schools Scott Cascone and district administrators discuss the district reopening plan at an Aug. 6 town hall meeting.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Following the presentation of the preliminary school reopening plan at a West Orange Board of Education meeting in July, Superintendent of Schools Scott Cascone and a panel of other school officials held a virtual town hall on Aug. 6, revisiting the plan and introducing changes. The plan that the BOE will be asked to approve at its Aug. 17 meeting consists of two phases, beginning with all-virtual learning at the beginning of the school year. West Orange will participate in synchronous online learning from Sept. 14 to Nov. 9, before transitioning into phase two. Phase two is a hybrid model that will return students to school in some capacity.

“We considered all of the different models that came out, all of the different suggestions that were presented to us by colleagues across the state and across our globe,” Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Eveny de Mendez said at the meeting. “We’ve reached out to other countries and observed their reopening patterns, observed what took place and how they have had to step back for the safety of the staff and students. In West Orange, we find ourselves in the same place.”

While all students would be learning online in the proposed plan, with virtual instruction taking place live over Google Meet, the district will prioritize in-person experiences for specific groups of students to prepare for virtual learning. Incoming kindergarteners, students who are new to the district, English language learners and basic skills students are included in that group.

“On or about Nov. 9, we would be ready to assess if we’re ready to move into that hybrid instructional model where we would provide in-person instruction for all students in some capacity,” de Mendez said.

De Mendez provided a breakdown of the first phase of the plan and how live virtual instruction will work for each school level. Preschoolers will participate in synchronous learning in the mornings from Monday through Thursday, leaving the afternoons open for teacher planning and individual student planning. On Fridays, there will be asynchronous learning.

The schedule is similar for elementary school students, but with the morning and afternoon time blocks broken down by subject. Middle school schedules are broken into hour-long class blocks in the mornings, with teacher office hours and independent study in the afternoons. West Orange High School’s schedule is similar to that of the middle schools, with the exception of different class blocks on different days.

While in the first phase of the reopening plan, some student groups will have in-person components. Director of Special Services Kristin Gogerty said at the meeting that special education evaluations would take place in person.

“One of our challenges was being able to conduct in-person evaluations,” she said at the meeting. “We do have an in-person evaluation protocol and would be looking to bring students in to complete those evaluations. The protocols do outline social distancing with PPE.”

Cascone addressed sport and extracurricular activities that can be done outside, such as band, at the meeting as well. He said that whether or not the fall sports season happens is up to Gov. Phil Murphy, but that he would like to be able to give students the option to practice until a decision is made.

“What I’ve said about this from the beginning and what I’ve heard confirmed is how good this has been for our kids, to be out on those practice fields, to be with their teammates after being sequestered for all those months, getting that physical activity,” he said. “If at a certain point in time we’re no longer able to do it safely, we may not be able to do it. But I’d like to continue to be able to offer these opportunities to our kids as long as we’re getting the authorization to do so.”

In November, if the district determines it can move into a hybrid model of learning, students will be divided into cohorts, with each cohort attending school two days a week in the mornings. Fridays will be reserved for both synchronous and asynchronous learning, while the afternoons will be dedicated to either independent study or arts classes. Preschool and elementary school students will be split into two cohorts; middle and high school students will be split into four cohorts, attending school on alternating weeks.

De Mendez said that if the pandemic does not allow for the reopening of schools even in a hybrid model, the district is prepared to pivot back to full-time virtual learning.

“We believe that the way in which we are bringing students in and servicing students that we are tending enough to the whole child and to those students who need it most, alongside a robust virtual platform. We believe that our plan is not only in the spirit of what the state has asked us to do, but is actually taking a more enlightened approach to it,” Cascone said.