WOSD plans for full-time in-person lessons in the fall

Superintendent Scott Cascone discusses the fall reopening plan at the June 21 Board of Education meeting.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education unanimously approved the West Orange School District’s safe–return-to-schools plan for the fall at its June 21 meeting, planning for the full reopening of the district and the first normal school year since the COVID-19 pandemic closed the buildings in March 2020. The plan was submitted to the New Jersey Department of Education by the June 24 deadline.

Superintendent Scott Cascone said that if the state does not release specific guidelines about returning to schools in the fall, the district will rely on local health officials to help make decisions.

“It’s been very strange, the way the state has rolled this out,” Cascone said at the meeting. “They require districts to complete a safe-return plan as a prerequisite component of the American Rescue Plan funding. But they did not provide any revised guidance or guidelines in advance of the safe-return plan.”

Cascone said that, after conferring with other superintendents across Essex County, most districts in the area decided to make a plan now but wait for further guidance and possibly revise the plan upon receiving it. The reason for not proposing a plan that accounted for future pandemic guidelines was to minimize the risk of the state not approving the plan. The plan follows the current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the New Jersey Department of Health.

“If we had, within this plan, adopted protocol that was not aligned with the current guidelines, we may have run the risk of the plan not being approved,” Cascone said. “But we also know that if the safe-return plan is implemented as it’s written, it will not enable us to be aligned with the governor’s proclamation of going back as usual.”

Gov. Phil Murphy announced in March that New Jersey schools will return to full in-person learning when they open in September and won’t be allowed to offer a full-time virtual learning option. If the state does not release updated guidelines before September, Cascone said local districts will use a greater degree of discretion when making decisions.

“We will have to assemble our own panel of medical and public health experts to help steer and guide us,” he said.

Surveys have been sent to staff asking who would be willing to serve on reopening committees over the summer; subcommittees include curriculum and instruction, mental health and social emotional learning, and health and safety. Community participation is encouraged on the committees.

“The survey we put out to the public did yield some useful information,” Cascone said.

Of the 90 responses received about COVID protocols, two came from nondistrict community members, 22 from staff, 62 from parents and four from students.

“There were a lot of commentaries on masks versus no masks, a lot of comments on vaccines, etc. — all of which we are really waiting on additional information from the state on,” Cascone said. “If we don’t get guidance from the state, we’re going to have to make sense of that on our own through our own public health and medical means.”

The survey results said some people are comfortable with students not wearing masks in school, while others felt strongly that unvaccinated students should continue to wear masks. Any course the district follows, Cascone said, needs to find a balance between the diverse thoughts that are found in town.

“Air conditioning came up,” Cascone said. “We are exploring some potential short-term solutions for that. There are some mobile air conditioning units, but we realize that continues to be an issue and is really a larger fix long-term.”

Grant funding will be used for HVAC remediation; Cascone said the district expects to get approval for the vendor in July. Other grant money will be used for mental health support.

BOE member Cheryl Merklinger asked how the district can make school community members feel as comfortable as possible when schools reopen, especially for those who are still hesitant about being around larger crowds.

“How do we make folks feel more comfortable? Especially at the high school level where students do have the opportunity to get vaccinated (and) parents can get vaccinated,” Merklinger said at the meeting. “Everyone has the opportunity at this point if you are 12 years and older to get vaccinated.”

Cascone again said the district is waiting on state guidance and will make decisions on that if and when it comes.

“The goal is to be back as usual,” he said. “If the state is saying we can’t learn virtually, then that’s what it has to be. I think we can assume that there are notable exceptions for students with medical fragility. What if we have to quarantine students? The premise of quarantining is not going away; COVID-19 is not going away. How are we educating them for 10 days while they’re home? So the state’s boilerplate proclamation has holes. Either they fill them in or we do, because, ultimately, we have the responsibility for being able to move forward and open the school district to operate. At a certain point in time we have to make decisions, and we can’t wait for the state to make them for us.”