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School Reopening Update from Superintendent Dr. Scott Cascone (8.14.2020)

School Reopening Update from Superintendent Dr. Scott Cascone (8.14.2020)

Good afternoon West Orange Public School Families,

We have finished the district's School Reopening Plan which will be presented to the board and community on Monday night. I will also be prepared to present a prospective timeline within which we foresee being able to effectively address the challenges outlined in this post and to be fully aligned with the Governor's most recent charge. Much of this information was shared at last week's "town hall". I understand but at the same am troubled by the perception that my administration has been myopic and/or uninspired in our address of the situation. I am hopeful that this post will provide some helpful context and perspective

Best Regards,

Dr. Cascone

 

CRITICAL AREAS & IRRECONCILABLE CHALLENGES

Critical Area / Irreconcilable Challenges #1: Health & Safety of Students and Staff

On August 3, 2020, Governor Murphy announced the decrease of indoor gathering capacity limit in response to the increase of COVID-19 cases in New Jersey. Indoor gatherings are now limited to 25 percent of a room's capacity, but regardless of the room’s capacity, the maximum limit shall be 25 persons, down from 100 persons.

In his announcement, Governor Murphy states, “In order to protect public health, we are re-tightening the restriction on indoor gatherings due to uptick of COVID-19 cases in New Jersey. We cannot stress enough that large and crowded indoor gatherings, where social distancing isn’t being practiced and face masks aren’t being worn, are not safe. Until there is a significant decrease of COVID-19 cases, these restrictions will continue to be in place.”

While schools are exempt from this executive order and social distancing practices are integrated into the district’s reopening plan alongside the required use of face coverings by students and staff (unless there is a medical condition or disability), committee members submitted the following as persistent concerns in this area:

West Orange High School currently serves approximately 2,175 students. At 25% capacity, approximately 544 students will be indoors, not to include 192 teachers and an additional 143 members of the support staff. While one-way hallways and staggered bell schedules have been integrated into the plan, there are persistent concerns around the number persons that will be indoors at once (approximately 879) and the number of people students and staff will be exposed to in one day.

For example, when considering teacher exposure to students alone, a teacher has up to 5 classes in a day with 10-12 students in his/her class. This takes into account reductions to class size to account for social distancing and a half day block schedule to reduce teacher contact and student passing time. The teacher’s daily exposure to different groups of high school students via classroom experiences alone could exceed 50 students. Additionally, teachers share classrooms, co-teach with inclusion teachers, and have paraprofessionals, interventionists, school counselors, and others that push-in or pull-out to provide additional instructional support.

Given the uncertainty around how the COVID virus may spread in a school setting and the current uptick in NJ COVID data, as cited by Governor Murphy on August 4th, the district committee members believe this poses a great health and safety risk to our staff. Additionally, this poses a feasibility concern as it relates to contact tracing.

-Students who do not adhere to the policy of wearing face coverings throughout the day, specifically when in classrooms and during passing times.

-Students and staff who are exempt from wearing face coverings due to medical concerns and/or disabilities and the impact it may have on other students and staff.

-Students who present symptomatic during class and the risk of exposure to COVID for other students and staff.

-Student emergencies during school day that would require the removal of face coverings, i.e. seizures.

-Considerations for managing multiple symptomatic students at one time (especially if isolation areas are full).

Critical Area / Irreconcilable Challenges #2: Personal Protective and Screening Equipment

Orders for personal protective and screening equipment were placed timely and with anticipation, to include: face coverings and face shields for staff, protective gowns for nurses and teachers who work in close proximity to students, shoe coverings, desk barriers, and thermal screeners. Reopening plans are dependent on the receipt of required equipment prior to the start of the school year. To date, not all district orders have been fulfilled in these areas.

Critical Area / Irreconcilable Challenges #3: Facilities

A persistent and primary concern directly impacting 10 of the 12 district schools is the compromised state of the heat ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment. In 2019-2020, the district experienced extenuating challenges with levels of CO2, that while within the permissible OSHA guidelines, were higher than ideal due to limited air circulation in the classrooms. This resulted in a proposal for a 50+-million-dollar bond that was tabled by the Board due to projected unfavorable community interest. The teacher association leadership, alongside their membership, as well as community members have expressed this as their number one concern regarding the reopening of schools in the fall.

Summer / early fall temperatures for the 40% of our classrooms that do not have air conditioning would experience a typical summer day of 80 degrees outdoors with in-classroom temperatures of 90 degrees on a first floor and higher on a second or third floor. In early fall, temperatures of 70 degrees would translate into 80 degrees indoors, etc. Irreconcilable risks to the health and students of staff in schools with extreme temperatures and without proper ventilation are compounded by the required use of masks for extended periods of time (4-hour day).

 

Ten of twelve schools in West Orange have HV units only which are operated as stand-alone individual room units working on manually operated thermostats in each room.

-Air conditioning is only provided by the use of window AC units.

-Approximately 40% of our classrooms do not have air conditioning.

-Most, if not all, HV units are original equipment (ranging between 30 and 100 years old)

-Fresh air is only brought into the room from the exterior only when the unit calls for heat.

-Windows must be used to assist in the ventilation of a room.

-Electric automated controls and replacement of the HV units is required to bring the systems up to current ventilation standards (ventilate when the rooms are unoccupied, ventilate when carbon dioxide is elevated).

Critical Area / Irreconcilable Challenges #4: Human Resources

Staff decisions related to medical conditions, child care, and accommodations are ongoing and directly impact the district’s ability to implement a fully staffed in person / hybrid instructional model. Reciprocally, staff decisions are contingent upon the feasibility of the district's reopening plan and the perceived risk the plan poses to their health and safety.

To date, the district has received requests for reasonable accommodations. Determinations for reasonable accommodations require an interactive process with time factors that impact the district’s implementation plan.

Additionally, a sizable number of staff members have notified the district that they may not return in the fall due to medical conditions, family related medical conditions and/or child care, of which fourteen have confirmed in writing. Assessing the actual status of our staffing is critical for the successful reopening of schools upon the start of the school year.

Securing leave replacements presents significant challenges, specifically for positions requiring specialized certifications. Given this challenge is not unique to West Orange, the pool of candidates to fill these leaves will be limited.

Critical Area / Irreconcilable Challenges #5: Meals

Approximately forty percent (40.5%) of the students in West Orange are economically disadvantaged and depend on the district to receive their meals. In addition to lunch, the district provides breakfast programs at the elementary schools and a breakfast after the bell program in two of its Title I schools that have poverty rates of 58.7% and 83.4%.

While the district was able to create a “grab and go” option at the middle and high school levels, due to the age of the students, this is not feasible for our youngest learners. Our hybrid model consists of a 4-hour school day given the size of our schools and the percentage of students that will need to be assigned to cohorts in order to provide a meaningful rotation.

Regarding indoor dining, on July 2nd, although indoor dining in the State of New Jersey was to resume, by executive order, Governor Murphy suspended moving forward this phase of reopening.

 

As recent as Monday, August 10th, the Governor maintained this position deeming that it remains too risky to permit indoor dining, citing a study of a restaurant outbreak in China earlier this year as evidence. Findings proved that the virus spreads more quickly inside than it does in the open air and “allowing diners to sit mask-less for an extended period of time in a restaurant where the air-conditioning unit could silently spread coronavirus is a risk we cannot yet take.” The Governor added that air flow is “a constant concern,” which is why the state has reopened more outdoor activities than indoor ones.

As reflected above in Critical Concern / Irreconcilable Challenges #3: Facilities section of this plan, the quality of air circulation across the district is already a primary concern. The use of window units for air conditioners potentially simulates the restaurant in China.

Due to the length of the day for our preschool disabled and elementary students, and the percentage of economically disadvantaged students that depend on the schools for breakfast and lunch, the district is faced with competing priorities between the nourishment of our youngest and neediest students vs. the safety of staff and students as they remove their masks twice per day in an enclosed classroom to eat breakfast and lunch.

Our preschool students are disabled. In addition to removing their masks while eating, the majority of the preschool school students require constant person to person contact throughout the day, assistance to eat, aspirate while eating, in some instances spit and in severe cases bite and require physical restraint.

The Road Back does not address these types of conditions for schools and the Preschool / Elementary K-5 eating in the classroom context remains a health and safety concern for students and staff.

Hand washing and sanitizing protocols for each meal would further impact the movement of students throughout the building, staggering schedules, and significantly reducing the instructional time of an already shortened day.

Additionally, when considering eating breakfast and lunch indoors, meals in the classroom would create an added risk for students with life threatening food allergies.

Critical Area / Irreconcilable Challenges #6: Special Services

The Department of Student Support Services includes students in Pre-K to Grade 12, as well as students in an 18-21 program. The department is comprised of various stakeholders including Special Education teachers, Child Study Team members, Related Service providers, paraprofessionals, and School Nurses.

A persistent focus within this department, as well as the overall district is to ensure the safety of students, staff members, and the school community as a whole. Staff leaves as a result of medical or childcare issues can adversely impact department staffing and securing qualified candidates to educate students with disabilities that require specific modes of instruction. Student behavior remains a concern, especially for students that engage in dangerous behaviors such as biting or spitting, which may put others at risk.

As we move into the 2020-2021 school year, the Child Study Team is faced with a backlog of evaluations from the previous school year. A continued focus for Child Study Team members is the scheduling of IEP meetings in conjunction with the district instructional schedule, teacher availability, and related service provider availability. The scheduling of Related Services will pose as a significant challenge with a hybrid model. Consideration must be made to alleviate Related Services providers from pulling students during in-person instruction. Additionally, Related Service providers must account for students with whom their parents opt for full remote learning/services. The co-mingling of students during group session remains a challenge.

-The District continues to work towards ensuring that paraprofessionals have a device to be able to effectively support student learning. This remains a collaborative effort between the Department of Student Support Services, as well as the Department of Technology.

-Educating our youngest learners in our Preschool Disabilities program is at the forefront of our department concerns from a safety standpoint. Below outlines various safety concerns, specific to the preschool:

-Preschool utilizes the Tools of the Mind curriculum, which is primarily play-based thus requiring students to work closely with one another.

-Preschool students require consistent physical contact between staff members and students which will impact social distancing (i.e. assistance with toileting).

-Students may have difficulty wearing face covers for an extended period of time.

-Use of shared space with the church.

-Servicing students in the Resource, Pull-Out Replacement (POR) program at the elementary level has posed as an area of ongoing focus. Consideration must be made for students in mixed programs, as well as accommodating multi-graded Resource, Pull-Out Replacement classes. Mixed programs can result in students moving from one class to another class, this co-mingling with different students throughout the day.

In the self-contained Autism, Intellectual Disabilities, and Behavioral Disabilities programs, the live-stream component of the hybrid model will be difficult, especially for students who are unable to independently access instruction without the support of an adult in the home. These programs also have a higher student to staff ratio and require consistent contact between staff member and students, which make social distancing difficult.

Critical Area / Irreconcilable Challenges #7: Professional Development

As expected, school closures related to a global pandemic and the accompanying health and safety protocols are a first-time experience for our school community and society as a whole. Coupled with an instant pivot from in person brick and mortar instructional practices to hybrid models containing virtual components and contemporary features, such as Google Meets with live video, each of these areas pose a steep learning curve for our instructional staff, school families and administrators alike. Pressing against “normal” change cycles, pre-planning efforts, and traditional instructional models are credible fears, increased anxiety, and traumatic effects that are directly tied to life, death, sickness and placing the well-being of our family members at risk against our professional responsibility to educate the students of New Jersey.

As such, specific, deliberate and dedicated time needs to be given to provide quality professional learning opportunities to our staff, to include social and emotional supports throughout this crisis period. Professional development needs to be front-loaded, prior to the reintroduction of students to the instructional environment, in order to effectively implement all phases of the reopening plan. Given that schools were closed and teachers were on summer vacation during the development of the reopening plans, it is critical to the successful implementation of our plans, that the district and its staff has adequate time for understanding, planning, preparing and providing direct feedback to implementation details at the beginning of the school year. This includes, but is not limited to:

-Health and safety

-Screening protocols

-Security Drills (I.e. fire, lock-down, code blue (cardiac arrest-defibrillation), and evacuation)

-Contact tracing

-Newly developed entry / exit patterns

-New technology and software

-Live-streaming synchronous lessons while simultaneously teaching students in person

-Curriculum compacting

-Assessing student learning gaps and designing interventions in the hybrid / virtual model

Critical Area / Irreconcilable Challenges #8: Instructional Programs, Assessment, and Addressing Learning Gaps

Across the State, students exited schools in March 2020, to enter into quarantine without notice. While the West Orange Public Schools, via teams of instructional staff, created and implemented an E-Learning Platform that provided students with access to quality virtual instruction:

-students were not prepared with the adequate training for virtual instruction

-student levels of independence varied across grade levels, student groups, and specialized populations

-parents were unevenly able to support students throughout

-teachers were learning how to re-imagine their content, develop and implement engaging lessons virtually that maintained high levels of academic rigor, and provided students with the social, emotional and in person supports they were accustomed to

-inequities and gaps that already existed among student groups were drastically and disproportionately widened access to technology, internet and home supports ranged greatly across homes

-students with disabilities and their families experienced a disconnect between virtual experiences and the plethora of supports that are in place across the district to ensure their academic, social and emotional success

-implementation lags for students of languages other than English presented themselves as content was developed in English and ELLs were unable to readily access language supports for the technology

-students have been removed from the formal in-person educational setting for six (6) months without proper assessment of their acquisition and/or retention of content area knowledge, understandings, skills, and transfer goals.

In order to effectively design and implement instructional programming for our students, specifically those representing specialized populations, such as: special education, English language learners, economically disadvantaged and Title I students, Tier II and Tier III students, and homeless students, the district will need to assess students to determine gaps in learning that both pre-existed and have now further been compounded by remote learning.

Critical Area / Irreconcilable Challenges #9: Financial Implications

The development of the 2020-2021 school budget began with reconciling an $11,000,00.00 shortfall including proposals for new expenditures. This gap would expand to $13,500,000.00 in July 2020, with a $1,552,838 reduction in state aid. The 2020-21 budget would consequently undergo substantial reductions in staff, professional development, student supports, instructional programming, instructional materials, technology, clubs, athletics, and more.

In developing the district’s Reopening Plan, adjustments to the originally proposed spending categories were shifted to accommodate the following expenditures, representing a significant strain on the district’s budget, staffing and instructional programming.

Furthermore, the expenditures and/or anticipated costs below represent what it would take to reopen our schools in the fall. Expenses, such as PPE and sanitizers are reoccurring costs that the school budget will not be able to sustain over a prolonged period of time. While the district may be reimbursed by FEMA up to 75% and may be able to initially open schools with the health and safety parameters outlined in this plan, the ability for schools to depend on external funding and grants and remain open with these provisions in place is of concern.

Below are expenditures and anticipated costs, to date, that are related to the Road Back anticipated minimum standards and school reopening plans.

 

Approximately Expenditures / Anticipated Costs

$300,000 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Sanitizers, Sprayers, Plexiglas Partitions

$20,400 Thermal Scanners

$33,000.00 120+ 10x10 Pop-up Tent Purchase

$12,700 Signage

 

SmartSource (Outsourced IT) $26,000

2,800 Chromebooks (Grades 4-8) $687,000

Faculty Laptops (ESSER Grant) $80,000

Ear buds, Webcams $25,000

$9,830, Professional Development

$100,000, Instructional Materials / Kits for Hybrid Learning

 Alternate Revenue Streams

The district has proactively pursued grant opportunities to help offset these expenses applying and being awarded approximately $600,000.00 dollars in the form of the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Grant (ESSER), applied for reimbursement under the FEMA Public Assistance Program, recently applied for a NJ Digital Divide Grant in the amount of $357,000, and have partnered with Hanover Research which provides full grant prospecting and writing services.

SUMMARY

Given each of the critical areas listed above and the corresponding irreconcilable challenges each pose to reopening the district schools in a safe and responsible manner, the District Restart Committee redirected the focus of the work, acknowledging that the Road Back cannot be about the safest way to bring our students back, but instead the safest way to educate our students.

As such, the district has developed a phased approach to hybrid instruction that would delay the number the students reintroduced to the school setting in the fall, thus enabling it to:

-Accurately and comprehensively assess the status of the schools at the beginning of the year to include:

-Identifying teacher shortages and leave coverages in order to ensure classes are adequately staffed.

-Ensuring all PPE and screening equipment has been received; where necessary, staff has been trained (i.e. thermal scanners); and distributed.

-Observe rising COVID data and the impact of the reopening of schools across the state of NJ in order to better inform decision making and plan development

-Offset the elevated heat / temperatures experienced in the late summer and early fall that are compounded by compromised HVAC systems and the requirement for students and staff to wear masks for extended periods of time without adequate ventilation.

-Provide comprehensive professional development to staff in the areas of:

-Health and safety

-Screening protocols

-Contact tracing

-Newly developed entry / exit patterns

-New technology and software

-Livestreaming synchronous lessons while simultaneously teaching students in person

-Curriculum compacting

-Assessing student learning gaps and designing interventions in the hybrid / virtual model

Provide comprehensive training and/or parent academies to students and families in the areas of:

-Health and safety

-Screening protocols    

-Contact tracing

-Newly developed entry / exit patterns

-New technology and software

-Supporting students in a hybrid instructional model

-Material distribution

-Special education students and hybrid learning

-English Language Learners and hybrid learning

-Evaluate the number of students who will opt for full-time remote learning in order to inform cohort sizes and reentry planning

-Assess specific students / specialized populations in order to determine instructional program and effectively plan for and deliver quality instruction via a hybrid model.