August 21: This article has been updated with information on the number of teachers who have requested early retirement or cited other reasons to not return to the classroom in the fall.
Board of Education members on Monday raised concerns about the lack of specifics around the planned all-virtual return to school less than three weeks from now — as well as the absence of clear policy goals — for South Orange and Maplewood students heading back to online learning amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The South Orange-Maplewood School District on August 8 unveiled its 129-page reopening plan, which called for starting the first two weeks of the semester remotely, mandated masks for students and teachers and a variety of health and safety protocols that include hand-sanitizer stations and improved ventilation, among other measures. A task force of more than 100 educators, administrators, health experts and parents created the plan.
Yet six days later, SOMSD ditched its dual back-to-school options and instituted a fully remote start to the academic year from September 8 through mid-November. The decision came days after the local teachers union, South Orange-Maplewood Education Association (SOMEA), asked for such a move, citing factors that it said made in-person teaching “not safe” — and followed Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order allowing for the delay of in-person learning and the state Department of Health’s new guidelines on school reopening.
At Monday’s BOE meeting, which was held via web conference, numerous parents submitted comments asking for details of the virtual reopening plan, transportation costs, offline options and the length of daily instruction for the two communities’ approximately 7,000 students. Teachers also submitted comments via email, expressing concern about the safety of returning to the classroom.
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Board member Elizabeth Baker said she thought the questions reflected a larger problem in that “we’re actually proceeding in a way that’s exactly the opposite of how policy governance is supposed to work.”
“We currently, as [Board] President [Annemarie] Maini pointed out, have no district goals for the year,” said Baker. “We have a task force working based on state minimum requirements, but without an actual mandate, board direction or charge from the board on what priorities should be in developing the plan. We should be setting priorities that reflect the expectations and the principles that the board expects the administration and these task forces to consider as they develop the plan.”
Baker took issue with the board’s discussion around meeting “minimum state standards” instead of addressing “what our community expects or our children’s need reflects.” She also called it the board’s “obligation to recognize” the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects and “the incredible psychological harm that has been done to some of our children as the result of the isolation.”
Baker said that SOMSD only met about 25 percent of the needs of students receiving free and reduced lunch in the spring. “But what are our expectations for the coming year?” she asked. “The board hasn’t been asked to collectively identify those expectations in a way that is consistent with policy governance so that administration and the task force can actually make sure that you’re developing a plan that we believe meets those priorities and expectations in our community.”
“We give individual feedback, but we don’t have that individual feedback collected to actually develop consensus and provide the administration with clear direction,” she added.
Ending on an optimistic note, Baker said that there was time to remedy these issues.
“It’s never too late to get back on track, and there’s a lot of very good work going on,” she said.
Maini replied, “I guess my concern with the board setting the necessary priorities outside of administration is that we run into the risk of [us] deciding what’s better versus working with the administration to help map out what the questions are.” She continued, “There’s a lot of moving pieces here, and the priority is to deliver as excellent an education as the … current system we have can deliver.”
Earlier in the meeting, board member Kamal Zubieta said she was “disappointed with the county” for not requiring that school districts vote on reopening plans.
“Setting that aside, many districts have decided to let their Board of Education vote. Others have not decided to have them vote but have [the plans] informally approved at public sessions,” she said. “And then there are many like us in our district where we don’t vote, we don’t get an informal approval on the matter, and I just wanted to open up to discussion — why are we in that third category?”
Zubieta spoke about the board’s focus on trying to meet New Jersey Department of Education guidelines. “I think that my vision as a board member is to aim higher than the state standards, and I would like to have the opportunity to vote on a plan that I feel proud of, that exceeds state standards,” she said.
Zubieta also criticized the lack of specifics about how many hours of online learning families can expect in the fall — and the effect on after-school care, which the South Mountain YMCA is planning to provide.
“If we don’t have more than a four-hour day, we’re shifting part of the day to the Y,” Zubieta said. “We’re shifting the burden of money, and we’re also shifting the burden of safety because if we’re having a difficult time ensuring the safety of our schools and facilities, how can we consider letting the Y use our facilities?”
Zubieta asked the Board of Education members to “nail down specifics” and noted, “I have full confidence that we can do this.”
Superintendent Ronald Taylor responded to concerns by first cautioning against discussing details about staffing in a public session “because it’s going to center, maybe, around collective bargaining….so I probably would advise … against going much deeper into that conversation.”
Taylor also said that he was trying to hew to the traditional role of a superintendent.
“For me, I’m always trying to stay in my lane … responsibilities that fall into my job descriptions and into my title and the things that are expected of me,” he said. “I don’t ask boards to vote on things they don’t normally have to vote on.” He added that was part of the training he had received in his career: “If you don’t have to get an approval, don’t put the boards in the circumstance where they’re considering something they don’t have to vote on.”
Taylor credited the work of the task force and added that he valued the board members’ opinions — and their role as elected representatives of the school community — although that didn’t “mean that every single thing” that the BOE wants will be “exactly what I recommend.”
Responding to Baker’s call for the board to set high-level priorities, Taylor said that he welcomed them. He added, “I don’t think that it’s something that is overstepping the role of a board, but there also has to be an understanding that we take these priorities, these overarching tenets, when we’re in the planning process, we’re having to deal with the practical situation that we’re in.”
Taylor also addressed the meal distribution plan, which he said provided approximately 250 students with lunch and breakfast for the following day at the end of the spring semester. “But we know we have many more students than that who are free and reduced lunch,” he said. “We’re going to definitely be doing all we can to reach out to figure out why some of our families are not using that.”
A ‘Tipping Point’ for Shifting to a Virtual Start
At the start of the meeting, Taylor outlined some of the considerations around the school district’s decision to opt for a remote start to the year — a move SOMSD made on Friday, the final day for families to choose between all-virtual and part-time in-person instruction for students.
Citing a 90 percent increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in children across the country over the past four weeks and evidence of their ability to transmit the contagious coronavirus, Taylor said that safety concerns guided the decision to go all-virtual.
The superintendent also revealed that some sanitizing supplies were back ordered until the end of September and that there weren’t enough Plexiglas barriers available. The school district also won’t know until next week whether air purifiers it has ordered would be delivered in time, he said. SOMEA, the teachers union, had raised some of the same issues in its letter to the school district last week.
Taylor also said that an unspecified number of SOMSD employees had requested retirement, temporary leave under the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and requests for accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act. [The district later confirmed that since April, administration has received close to 60 requests for early retirement, leave of absence, FMLA and 504 requests from teachers, which is roughly 8.5% of the total teaching staff.]
Taylor also cited Murphy’s pivot allowing districts that could not meet the Department of Health guidelines to begin the school year remotely.
The issue of safety around in-school lunch also loomed large. Taylor said the issue of children congregating in an indoor space with masks off, eating and talking, posed a serious risk — and that it was a factor in offering a shortened in-person school day in its hybrid learning option.
Taylor said that most districts that were planning to offer hybrid back-to-school plans did not include cafeteria lunchtime. “Some had 2½-hour [in-school] schedules where lunch is at home,” he said.
The Superintendent also reviewed the budget implications of the plan. Between a reduction in state aid and increased expenditures of $3.3 million for costs including cleaning supplies and custodial staff, the district had been anticipating a nearly $6 million budget increase. Much of that will not be required now because of the switch to all-remote learning. However, Taylor said, the district plans to move ahead with purchases for ventilation equipment and cleaning supplies in anticipation of school buildings reopening at a later date.
It is unclear how this impacts the district’s planned facilities and capital improvement plan, which was approved last year.