Parents, Board of Ed Members Call for Changes to Virtual Instruction in South Orange, Maplewood Schools

by Bruno J. Navarro
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Three weeks into an all-virtual school year amid the threat of a deadly, global pandemic, South Orange and Maplewood parents described a variety of hardships students are facing while trying to learn via online classes.

For nearly the entire hour allotted to the public speaks portion of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting on Monday, Septemeber 21, parents pleaded for a return to in-person school, particularly for children with individualized education programs (IEPs) and special-ed students. 

“Have you ever been smacked in the face with a Chromebook after trying to redirect a child? I have,” wrote one parent in e-mailed remarks read aloud by Superintendent Ronald Taylor before he stopped, citing student privacy issues.

SOMSD shut down schools March 16 along with other classrooms throughout New Jersey  in an effort to halt the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, before Gov. Phil Murphy ordered them closed for the remainder of the academic year in May. To date, Essex County has reported close to 21,000 cases and nearly 1,900 deaths from the coronavirus. More than 7 million cases have been reported in the United States, along with more than 200,000 fatalities.

While SOMSD classes went virtual in the spring, the school district has since implemented Canvas, an online education platform, to help standardize the experience for students and manage various learning apps in a single location, for the 2020-21 school year.

Yet the experience has left many Maplewood and South Orange parents and students dissatisfied.

Another parent, Katie Tichacek, criticized the special-education shortcomings of virtual learning. “It is clear that the district can’t uphold the legal obligations per IEPs,” she wrote to the Board of Education. “I certainly don’t blame the district. The blame lies squarely on COVID, but as a result we as parents and students cannot uphold our obligations to do the whole virtual learning setup as it is. This is not how I want my child spending his precious limited ability to focus. I cannot bring myself to force it when it is not educationally valuable. It is not worth his attention.”

Deborah Engel, a candidate for one of three seats on the BOE up for grabs this fall, questioned the decision-making process for revising the K-5 schedules last week.

“Was teacher input and feedback incorporated into the plans?” she wrote. “Why would teachers be notified of the changes on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend with no time to prepare? Why was no survey sent to parents and teachers to gauge how things were going?” 

Taylor responded that “teacher input was definitely a part of the planning” and noted that many factors, including a review of best practices were taken into account. “And also know that the shift was made, of course, in the best interests of our students,” he added. 

Another parent invoked equality in his plea to return to in-person learning.

“The divide in SOMA between wealthy and poor is being greatly emphasized during all-virtual learning,” Robert Lynch wrote. “As a town that puts equality at the forefront of our moral code, it is our duty to send students to school in person to reduce the inequality that is happening as the result of all-virtual learning.”

Elissa Malespina, who is also vying for a BOE seat in November, took issue with the school district removing classes such as art and music from the live instruction portion of the day. “These are the classes that students enjoy the most and should not be removed for the traditional day,” she wrote. “Who exactly was part of the process of making these changes? What data was collected from parents, students and teachers prior to making these changes, or was it all anecdotal?”

Taylor said that teachers, school principals and department heads were consulted, along with the teachers union, the South Orange-Maplewood Educational Association (SOMEA). 

“I think that we’ve shown that we are very collegial in nature, but there are times when tough decisions have to be made in the best interests of our students, and that’s what we perceive this to be,” Taylor added.

In response to another parent’s question about English-language learners (ELL) instruction, Taylor said that the assistant superintendent of special services, Melody Alegria, has already begun work on returning students to child study team (CST) evaluations, as well as offering in-person occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT). “We’re now reviewing the possibility of providing in-person services for some students who are possibly more vulnerable, especially in this virtual setting,” Taylor said.

[Watch the full September 21, 2020 South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting here.]

Calls for Better Instruction in Fine Arts

The issue of arts instruction also drew concern from parents and board members.

Parent Kirsten Russler wrote during public speaks to ask what SOMSD was doing to find venues for fine-arts students to learn, produce and perform. “Students in our district deserve more. They shouldn’t have to wait any longer for the district to respond.”

Taylor said that he has spoken to principals to figure out support for the arts.

“We do have a strategy in place, and we are asking those who put forth themselves for the opportunity to give us their creative solutions so that we can make sure we are going to be bringing back opportunities for arts as part of our programming,” Taylor said.

Board member Anthony Mazzocchi pointed out that music and art are state-mandated subjects and argued that they should not be moved into the asynchronous — or non-live — portions of the virtual school day.

“When our students engage in the arts — not passively watch the arts asynchronously — but engage in them, they have the amazing effects on our children that our own neighbors so eloquently expressed during public speaks,” he said.  “This does not occur by staring at the screen passively on their own time. It comes from active engagement with the act of creating art with teachers — singing, drawing, acting, playing an instrument — and these are the very activities that bring and keep many of our students in our schools. 

“Why on earth would we be choosing the middle of a pandemic to take these opportunities away and substitute with what I believe is a clearly inferior process that won’t allow, at the end of the day, for the meeting of educational expectations?” Mazzocchi added. “I have a hard time believing that our school district can be committed to socio-emotional learning and at the same time marginalize these subjects.

“I am surprised and disappointed that these steps are our best example of creativity in dealing with a tough situation.”

Board member Johanna Wright also spoke passionately about arts instruction, noting that Columbia High School alum such as recording artist Solana Rowe, better known as SZA, and artist Bisa Butler benefited from the school district’s teachers. “Just last year when SZA came in, one of the first things she mentioned was what saved her life,” she said.

“Those connections are very important, especially when we’re talking about socio-emotional health and well-being,” Wright said. “I talked about this with sports and how important I thought it was that we bring the coaches back for the fall.”

Wright called arts instruction an equity issue. “We’re not providing access to all kids to all things,” she said. “We’re not talking about the whole and complete child.”

Taylor said he agreed with the importance of the arts and noted that both live and prerecorded are available.

“We’re in emergency circumstances. We’re trying to make the best of a very strained situation,” he said. “I know there may be disagreement, but a way for us to offer both synchronous and asynchronous arts for our students who are in the K-2 realm was a way for us to make sure we’re available to families who are in many types of circumstances.”

Board member Thair Joshua, who is also the parent of a kindergartener, said that he found the “specials” adequate for his child. “I think it’s easier for me after a two-hour break to bring them back for the best part of their day,” he said.

Mazzocchi, who cowrote the state’s reopening plan for arts education, responded that SOMSD’s current approach was far from ideal.

“We like to talk about best practices. I can tell you, this is nowhere even in the appendix of best practice. If it’s such a great idea, we could do it for the other subjects,” he said.

Mazzocchi also decried the lack of data to support the school district’s arts instruction plan. “I don’t have that data in front of me, so I really can’t comment on that except for anecdotally, and I don’t think that’s what we’re in the business of doing here,” he said.

Board member Elizabeth Baker added that she was concerned about other non-live courses subjects library and physical education — and called for creativity in using the schools’ outdoor space for in-person instruction.

“I think we need to be honest that while we are looking to go hybrid in the winter, it’s also going to be harder to do that from a public-health standpoint potentially. And I don’t feel like we’ve used the asset of our outdoor space creatively as we’ve seen other districts in the area do, including preschools,” she said.

“Working in the neighborhood locally, I see families that are organizing art classes in the afternoon outdoors in parks and in yards, and I just feel that we should be able to find a way to creatively use our space and find some bridge both for the screen time problem while also making the connection and allowing the creativity because it really is a matter of mental health, creative health and intellectual health for our children,” Baker said,

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