South Orange-Maplewood Schools Planning for Full-Time In-Person Only Instruction for Fall, With No Virtual Option

by Mary Barr Mann
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Shutting down social media rumors, a spokesperson for the South Orange-Maplewood School District confirmed — and stressed — that all grades would return to full-time, in-person instruction with no virtual classes this fall, barring any unforeseen events.

[Note: This article originally reported that the fall return would be full day. We are following up with the district to ascertain if that is, in fact, correct.]

“The District follows guidelines from the state and local health department levels,” wrote South Orange & Maplewood School District Director of Communications Anide Eustache in an email response to Village Green. “As we prepare to work on our reopening plan, the District is solely following state guidelines, and unless the mandate changes, we are moving forward with preparation to have all students in school full-time (five days a week). There will be no virtual option provided, all instruction will be in-person.”

The return to in-person instruction complies with an announcement by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in May that students would no longer have the option to learn remotely starting in September.

“We are declaring that all students will be back in school for full-time, in-person instruction come the start of the 2021-2022 school year,” Murphy said. “Next year parents will not be enabled to broad scale opt their child out of in-person instruction as was allowed this school year.”

Eustache noted that a full reopening remains contingent on continued progress against COVID-19: “As we continue to monitor our COVID rates at the local and state level, if there are any major changes mandated the District will respond accordingly. Also, obviously, COVID isn’t over yet, so when schools reopen in the Fall, we still have to manage possible school or class level closures and or quarantining, so the reopening plan will take this into consideration and have processes in place for a class who may have to learn from home (if they are in quarantine).”

Eustache said that some, but not all, details about the district’s plans for a full return to in-person instruction — which are due to the New Jersey Department of Education by the end of June — would be forthcoming at the June meeting of the Board of Education: “Some information will be provided at the next BOE meeting, however, we have reconvened the Reopening Taskforce so that we are able to submit our plans to the state by the end of the month. The plan will have to address safety guidelines and operation logistics with having all students back in school.”

Meanwhile, there will be no further return to in-person instruction for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year, despite the pleas of numerous parents, including comments submitted during public comments at the May 10 Board of Education meeting. Parents cited high vaccination rates, declining infection rates and the positive impact of in-person instruction on their children’s mental health and academic performance.

“We are pleased that we have successfully reached Phase 5 and beyond (and that we have been able to add cohorted in-person Fridays as part of our secondary schedules). Our mitigation efforts in concert with vaccinations have had the desired results that we all sought…to give all of our families the choice to select in-person instructional opportunities,” said Eustache.

On May 3, the district began offering in-person instruction to students in all grades who chose to return to hybrid learning. That date marked the return of Grades 3-5, who joined their K-2 classmates five days a week, as well as 7th, 10th and 11th graders who remained on a “cohort” schedule, with students alternating in-person instruction with virtual, at home days. Beginning on Friday, May 21, the district added in-person cohorted Fridays for middle and high school students.

Numerous parents commenting at the May 10 BOE meeting asked that students be able to eat lunch at school or return for school after lunch, that school days be extended to full-day in-person instruction, and that all students be able to return to in-person instruction five days a week immediately.

Eustache said that there would be no further return to in-person instruction for the year beyond the addition of those cohorted Fridays.

“We of course all seek normalcy for our families and students and we will continue to do all we can to provide as much as we can,” said Eustache. “While we acknowledge the advocacy to adjust schedules now, the District does not agree that it is the appropriate next step. This year has been arduous for everyone and we believe that having consistent expectations for the duration of this school year is paramount. We are continuing to discuss what next steps are possible while of course planning for a bevy of summer programming and our fall reopening.”

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