On Tuesday, Sept. 2, The South Orange-Maplewood School District (SOMSD) hosted a virtual town hall discussion to provide information on academic and social-emotional initiatives for the upcoming school year. With upwards of 350 community members in attendance, the panelists discussed topics comprising class schedules, mental health services, technology and other resources available to students and families.
Panelists included SOMSD Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor, Assistant Superintendent of Special Services Dr. Melody Alegria, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for grades K-8 Ann Bodnar, Parenting Center Supervisor and head social worker Karen Weiland, Curriculum and Instruction Supervisor Kimberly Beane, Language Arts Supervisor Dr. Jane Bean-Folkes, Social Studies Supervisor Christopher Preston, STEM Supervisor Jameel Misbahuddin, World Language Supervisor Dr. Ramon Robles-Fernandez, Director of School Counseling Falynn Balassone, SOMSD Multimedia Communications Specialist Anide Eustache and Director of Technology Keith Bonds.
Attendees were allowed to ask questions by submitting their queries into a Q&A box, where a panelist could then type back an answer. When a question was widely applicable, moderator and incoming CHS principal Frank Sanchez would assign a panelist to provide an answer out loud to the entire group.
One aspect about this year’s new structure that was explained was the “flipped classroom” approach. According to Bodnar, students will be assigned work outside of school hours in the form of readings, a video or other mediums that will prepare them for the next day’s lesson. “It really takes away from that major, long lecture time that we all remember having when we were kids. … It will allow them also to work in small groups the next day. It will allow for deeper learning and interactive discussions,” she explained. Sanchez later added, “the idea is [when] we kind of go over the most challenging aspect of [the concept], they would have the support of our great faculty and professionals.”
Some parents, however, were unclear on how homework would be balanced with the work required for the flipped classroom approach, to which Bodnar responded, “We have a guideline for homework that we put on and really understanding that we are in different times right now, so we really thought carefully about the amount of homework we wanted to assign. … Everything is very similar and consistent between grade levels, and subjects and classes, so homework has been assigned to meet those needs.”
In terms of screen time, the amount of hours spent on a device will differ based on grade and the needs of each individual student. “For instance, our kindergarteners—our five-year-olds—some even are four coming into kindergarten. They won’t necessarily be on as long as maybe even a second grader or a third grader, and definitely not like a high school student,” assured Bodnar. However, as she went onto explain, no matter how old a student is or what grade they are in, they will not be spending hours strait staring at a screen; “We have asked our teachers to plan in a number of movement breaks throughout their day so that students will not be sitting in front of the computer all day long.”
Mental Health and Social-Emotional Learning
Given the stressful circumstances surrounding remote learning, SOMSD has decided to put emphasis on preserving the mental health of their students. “We know social-emotional learning will be critical to reengaging our students, supporting adults who are working with our students and families, building relationships and creating a foundation for academic learning,” stated Dr. Alegria. The areas that the district’s mental health services will be prioritizing are helping students cope with their anxiety, self-esteem, referrals to outside services, stress and anger management, monitoring behavioral issues, crisis intervention, bullying and peer pressure.
The district also aims to address mental health concerns specifically stemming from COVID-19. “Our families and our children have been some of them personally impacted, and we want to make sure that we’re wrapping our arms around them and fully supporting them when it comes to mental health, and counseling and support social-emotional [wise],” said Dr. Alegria. Attention will also be turned toward friendships that may have been strained by social distancing.
In terms of student support services, there will be classes led by counselors and social workers, which will encompass restorative circles to help students cope with the fallout of the pandemic. Individual and group counseling will also be provided for all students who need it, regardless of whether or not they have an individualized education program. Also being developed are online mentorship and buddy programs, where lower grades can be connected to upper grades in order to establish a peer support system. On the secondary level, the Guidance department is looking to plan virtual events such as career fairs, financial aid nights, Cougar Connects (the middle school peer counseling program), senior awards, among others.
Additionally, support is being provided to staff in the form of scripts. Such scripts aim to help in scenarios such as if school were to reopen, and to supply responses to hard to answer pandemic-related questions that students might have. “As we know, our teachers may not be mental health experts, so we want to make sure that we’re providing them with the tools necessary to assist our students,” said Dr. Alegria.
Also new this school year, SOMSD is instituting a call line that students, family members or staff can call when they are in need. If used on a school day, a social work intern will return the call within 24 hours. “[It’s] really to provide some additional resources to families, to students [and] to staff members who may just need some brief counseling that can be provided over the phone, and also referrals and to identify additional resources as needed,” described Dr. Alegria.
Technology and Other Resources
How technology will be utilized was also explained by the panelists. One aspect of schooling that has had to be reconfigured for the virtual classroom is testing. According to Beane, for the lower Elementary grades, “We’re not able to really give them any kind of written test under this circumstance, and so a lot of that assessment will happen when the teacher’s pulling small groups and the conversations teacher and students are having, as well as seeing the activities that [teachers have] asked them to do.”
Dr. Bean-Folkes also spoke to how assessments in the Language Arts department in particular will work: “We’ve partnered with Teacher’s College for assessments that can be done online, and they’ve been modified from what we would normally do face to face,” she explained. “We have been able to secure really simple assessments that will give us insight into student knowledge around reading and also around writing.”
Help is available for families in need of technological assistance or other resources. Requests for Chromebook assistance can be sent to email@example.com, and issues will try to be troubleshooted remotely.
Regarding books, SOMSD has forged a partnership with the town libraries, and the school libraries will also be distributing texts as needed. “The librarians are really happy to help students locate materials, and they can give us multiple copies if a group of students would like to read the same text, as well as our school libraries,” explained Dr. Bean-Folkes. Gently-used books will also be available at Columbia High School and Seth Boyden Elementary School.
One parent expressed concerns over their elementary aged child being able to navigate the technological aspects of online learning while parents are at work. In response, Beane explained, “There’s going to be a gradual stage of students learning all of these different skills. At the beginning of the year, even if we were in the school building, we spend a couple of weeks getting students used to our routines, and procedures and expectations. And we’re going to have to do that same thing virtually now, and part of that’s going to be clicking links, and so on.”