What will happen in the fall — whether students will return to school in person, attend remotely or participate in some kind of hybrid, is the question on parents’ minds and a topic of global debate, as schools in Israel reopened with what has been deemed “disastrous results.”

On July 10, Montclair’s new superintendent of schools, Dr. Jonathan Ponds, sent families and caregivers this email:

As your new Superintendent, this is my first update about the planning in progress by the district to address multiple issues for returning students to schools in the fall. Our five design teams are hard at work exploring different scenarios during these changing times. They are assessing various learning environments including the social emotional and technological components of what school will look like.

We are using your responses from the parent survey to inform our planning. Our utmost priority is ensuring the safety of our students and faculty and we will follow the CDC and New Jersey Department of Education guidelines as well as following the advice of our local health department and school physician.

I will be providing you a more detailed update in the next two weeks to assure you that plans are moving forward and allowing you time to make adjustments as a family. Please know that all our plans include enhancing the educational experience for all of our learners.

West Orange Schools sent an email to its public school families on July 12 regarding its reopening plans, speaking to both the challenges of reopening in person as well as how that district will handle the differing needs of its families, from Superintendent of Schools Dr. Scott Cascone.

We know there is a percentage of parents who will opt not to send their children to school for in-person instruction, but instead will opt for a more engaging and concrete virtual model. Simply stated, our plan will look to have a component which accommodates families that are not comfortable reintroducing their children to in-person instruction in the fall. As such, incorporating lessons learned and stakeholder feedback from the E- Learning experiences during the March – June closures will be a primary focus for the district’s reopening plan.

When considering the instructional challenges virtual instruction posed for our students, exponentially so for some of our specialized populations, parents have expressed the need to have students return to in-person instruction as often as possible. We agree to the necessity and benefit of extended in-person instruction. As we plan for in-person instruction in some capacity for all students, our reopening plan will prioritize our specialized populations, to include but not be limited to: students in self-contained special education programs, English Language Learners, homeless students, those who have been retained and/or are receiving Tier 3 intervention services, as well as Title I schools, wherein we saw the greatest disparities.

In some cases, there are families in our community that will require some form of assistance with child care. I am presently in collaboration with the YMCA in hopes of establishing all-day care programs that would accommodate select families.

Additionally, parents are as concerned about having opportunities for socialization and tending to the social emotional state of the children as they are with academics. Our reopening plans will seek to provide all students with periodic opportunities to come to school for a variety of reasons and purposes, not only for academic support/instruction. This may include school counseling appointments, college planning, assemblies, community/team building events, and extracurricular activities.

As referenced earlier in this letter, when considering safely reopening our schools, there are a host of logistical constraints we face.

First, we can at most, fit a quarter of our student population in our buildings on any given day based upon the social distancing guidelines that have been provided by the State. Needless to say, the district will be unable to accommodate 100% of its students on a daily basis. Classrooms normally programmed to seat up to 25 students, will now be limited to a range of 5-11 students, based on square footage and seating arrangements that place students 6 feet apart. Further diminishing our on-site capacity are smaller spaces that were used for specialized instruction that will have to be repurposed as we seek to ensure the safety of students and staff.

Second, and perhaps most significant, when considering hybrid instructional models that include in- person instruction, our ability to staff each of our classes will inevitably be our greatest determining factor. We are currently surveying our staff in order to determine the percentage that may be unable to return in the fall due to pre-existing medical conditions, as well as those who will have childcare issues of their own, given that districts across the State will greatly vary in their reopening approaches. In-person structures for reopening, therefore, will be limited by these factors and need to make provisions for teachers in these categories to provide instruction via a fully virtual model.

Third, applying social distancing guidance to our school buses reduces the district’s capacity to transport students from approximately 54 students per large bus to 21. The constraints of our local budget do not permit the district to add additional bus routes, thus impacting our ability to stagger schedules, consider AM / PM programming, and/or increase the number of times a cohort of students can be scheduled for in-person instruction when it exceeds the ability to safely transport students.

At the July 9th Board of Education meeting, I spoke extensively to these points during my Superintendent’s report and would encourage you to view the video which can be accessed through the following link:

The district’s reopening plan is due to the State in three weeks. As we continue to work through these considerations, we anticipate providing more detailed information to our West Orange School community in early August. School-based Pandemic Response and Reopening Teams, as well as laser focused sub- committees focused on topics such as Health and Safety, Building Protocols, Cleaning and Sanitization, Social Emotional Care, Scheduling, and Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment have been formed and will seek to specifically address our task ahead.
At this juncture, your input and feedback relative to two key questions, in particular, is critical to the refinement of our approach and plan. Namely:

  • If the school district were to offer a hybrid plan whereby students would participate in school on site at least once a week as well as engaging in virtual instruction on the other days, would you send your child to school?
  • If you were to send your child to school, would you do so on a school bus if eligible for transportation?

The answers to these questions and the corresponding data will be essential for us to determine the exact number of our expected on-site cohorts, the amount of time students will be able to receive in-person instruction / support, and the number of students we could accommodate on site on a particular day.

Cascone elaborated on the email and responded to some questions he received from parents in this video: