Amid a recent rise in local COVID-19 cases that mirrors a national trend, the South Orange-Maplewood School District unveiled its plan to bring students back for in-person classes beginning November 12.
At the Board of Education meeting held on Monday via online webinar, Superintendent Ronald Taylor provided an overview of SOMSD’s six-phase plan that will reopen schools beginning with students in kindergarten through second grade, English language learners (ELL) and special-education classes.
See the full presentation here:
The plan set out target dates to offer a hybrid mix of in-person and virtual instruction, with Phase Two giving teachers the option to return to their classrooms beginning this week — for the first time since the school district first adopted online-only learning in March as part of an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19 amid a global pandemic that has claimed more than 16,000 lives throughout New Jersey.
In October alone, South Orange reported a total of 21 positive cases, five of whom are teenagers, Village President Sheena Collum announced this week. Maplewood has seen 19 new cases this month, with teenagers accounting for nine of those cases, Mayor Frank McGehee said.
In his presentation, Taylor described the progression from the all-virtual Phase One through the fully in-person Phase Six and spoke of the steps that had been taken in creating the plan along with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the state Department of Health and local health officials.
He reviewed the three “Tipping Points” that had guided the district’s original decision to open with all-remote learning, the progress made since then, and the problems that still need to be addressed:
- Health & Safety Issues
- Staffing Concerns
Facilities Upgrades and Ventilation
Taylor said that high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters had been installed in each classroom’s univent or air conditioner with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating of 16 — among the highest category of filters typically used in hospitals — and a MERV rating of 18 for rooftop ventilation systems, as well as air purifiers, Plexiglas barriers and hand-sanitizing stations throughout SOMSD buildings.
The school district will also provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for nursing staff, plus reusable masks for teachers and students, and it plans to hire additional custodial staff as more students return, Taylor added.
Board member Anthony Mazzocchi praised the school district’s focus on addressing ventilation to prevent transmission of the airborne virus that causes COVID-19. However, he questioned whether the district had addressed the issue of rate of air change throughout the schools. The air change rate tells how quickly a room can be cleared of airborne coronavirus. If a room can be quickly cleared, the transmission rate is reduced.
Mazzocchi later clarified to Village Green that he has learned from his work as the director of the Cali School of Music at Montclair State University that both air filtration and air change rate in rooms are critical to ensuring a safe environment.
“I believe that we need to create opportunities for in-person teaching and learning at this time,” Mazzocchi said. “I’ve worked hard in my field to do that myself, and I commend the administration on all of the steps they have taken to address air filtration, specifically. That said, a successful return to school will require air change rates to be addressed — the speed at which we can clear a room of airborne contaminants — and a creative schedule and use of space set up in tandem accordingly. Until I see evidence of that, I remain seriously concerned for the health and well-being of our teachers and students.”
SOMSD employees have submitted a total of 45 leave requests — including seven retirements and one resignation — related to the coronavirus pandemic, Taylor said. Thirty-two employees have requested to work from home.
The South Orange-Maplewood Education Association (SOMEA), the union representing local teachers, sent a letter to the Board of Education that called for continuing the remote learning model. “(We) strongly believe that delivering remote instruction to at least half of a class on a computer at home and another portion of the class still on a computer in the classroom by a teacher under mask and shield will result in less effective instruction for all students and greater inequities among students,” SOMEA’s executive board wrote in a letter.
SOMEA — which called for fully remote learning in August, shortly before the school district moved to an all-online start to the academic year — cites rising COVID-19 cases in Essex County, the lack of third-party inspection of the school district’s ventilation upgrades and a shortage of custodial staff to disinfect surfaces between periods.
“Teachers are currently teaching each day, with few absences because they are managing effectively to teach notwithstanding their illnesses or those of their family or appointments,” the letter states. “A return to school will mean greater absences in a period when substitute teachers are not available, which was already a serious problem.”
Phase Three: Alternating Schedules — and a Discussion of Outdoor Learning
Phase Three, which is scheduled to start Thursday, November 12, involves splitting students into two groups that will alternate two days of in-person classes and two days of virtual instruction, with all-online learning on Fridays. The plan also provides four days a week of in-person classes for ELL and special-education students.
The plan also limits Columbia High School to a maximum of 500 students at any given time. Taylor gave no further details about how it would work, although noted that an online presentation on Tuesday, October 27, would focus on the CHS plan, with families expected to select between all-virtual or hybrid instruction by October 28.
Board member Kamal Zubieta noted that CHS families would have less than a full day to decide between the two options. “I hope we can give them the plan well before the town hall, possibly this week,” she said. “I feel like giving them one day is not giving them adequate notice.” Taylor said there would be more information available for CHS families before the Town Hall.
Another online presentation on reopening for non-CHS students is scheduled for Monday, October 26.
Board of Education member Elizabeth Baker asked what would happen to the rest of the Columbia student body and whether they would return to school before the third marking period begins January 4. Baker acknowledged the progress SOMSD had made in its reopening plan but expressed concerns about delaying a return for CHS students, citing what schools in West Orange, Millburn and Montclair are doing.
“I don’t see any district saying that they’re leaving potentially half the high school in an involuntary remote situation absent the public-health requirement to not be in hybrid, as this would propose,” she said. “I don’t think the kids are all right, and I don’t think 800 or 1,000 students can be left until January, which is already the third marking period.”
Baker credited the administration’s “incredible movement to make the building safe” but said, “We’ve let critical months with better weather slip through our fingers and for students to have some structure, and even in the virtual model we’re not providing as much instruction or as much service as comparable districts are.”
Last month, Baker noted that the district wasn’t using its outdoor space to facilitate in-person instruction for SOMSD students. “I have urged the safe, COVID-compliant use of our outdoor space to foster connections and student engagement — whether it was initial outdoor meet and greets with teachers, office hours with teachers and administrators, arts and library programming, or extracurricular club meetings,” Baker told Village Green on Tuesday.
Phase Four: Post-Thanksgiving — and Bridging the Digital Divide
For the fourth phase, Taylor said that all remaining elementary and middle school students could return for a two-day-per-week hybrid schedule following the Thanksgiving Day holiday on November 30.
“I have supreme faith that our community and our parents will quarantine if they are traveling,” Taylor said, pledging support for those families who needed to observe a 14-day quarantine as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for those who have come into contact with persons infected with the coronavirus.
Taylor added that parents would be expected to sign a one-time agreement “to adhere to daily screening” for their child.
Board member Johanna Wright asked how quarantining requirements would work for teachers who visit relatives for Thanksgiving, asking if their pay would be docked. “That would sort of incentivize teachers not to report, in my view,” she said.
Taylor declined to respond in detail, citing the potential to breach collective bargaining agreements with the teachers union, saying only, “It’s your own personal and professional responsibility.”
Taylor also spent a great deal of time discussing the district’s remaining digital divide: “We as a District are aware that there is a digital divide within the universe of families that we serve and it is based on socioeconomic status,” the presentation read. There are still students who lack access to computers and the internet.
Further, the district must address connectivity issues. Upgrades have been made, but there is still more to do, Taylor said.
Phase Five: Hybrid Learning at CHS
The fifth phase would see Columbia students return to school with some sort of hybrid schedule on January 4. In all phases, students will be able to opt for remote learning.
SOMSD will hold two public, online meetings to discuss reopening plans in further detail for preschoolers through eighth-graders on Monday, October 26, and for Columbia High School students on Tuesday, October 27.
Phase Six: A full return to in-person classes
No date has been set for this, although Taylor said the state will determine when it is safe for all students to return to the classroom.