More schools present virtual plans as districts battle budget hurdles

West Orange joins the ranks of school districts presenting plans to the state for virtual learning in the fall.

Districts that are going fully-remote cite different reasons. Take Willingboro, an area that’s been hard hit by COVID-19, and whose population, which is 70% Black, is especially vulnerable to the virus. That district’s plan would be all remote with the option to switch to a hybrid model, once the board determines it’s ready to do so. West Orange has a similar plan.

“What I would hope is that, at the end of the day, the governor and Department of Education will look at this plan and say, can this plan be effective in providing the children in the community what they need,” Scott Cascone, the superintendent of West Orange public schools, said. “Our schools will be used in many ways, what I’ve referred to as services hubs. And our intention is to scale up to our cohort model, really as soon as we have our capacity in place to do so safely and efficiently.”

Facilities would be open largely to students with special needs. But like many districts, West Orange is dealing with old buildings that lacking appropriate HVAC systems to properly ventilate rooms.

“That was perhaps the point that really kind of turned my mind as to opening the buildings in the first several weeks of school, recognizing the extreme temperatures that would be in our schools and not really having any way to remediate that other than to tell folks open a window. Or, it’s a half-day, so it won’t be that hot before students are dismissed. I couldn’t reconcile that,” he said.

Cascone had hoped to move forward a $15 million referendum to upgrade the HVAC system, but he doesn’t think it’s likely in this economy. And, while many districts lack the funds for repairs, high poverty districts, largely urban and rural, often have the greatest needs with the least funding.

New Jersey Policy Perspective found that many still haven’t recovered from the Great Recession, leaving them especially vulnerable during the pandemic.

“Our response to the Great Recession was one which worsened disparities along racial lines. And for a state as diverse as we are, that significantly harms, not only the welfare of families and households across the state, it also harms our future, it harms our economy when basically the quality of your education is determined by your zip code and the color of your skin, more or less. So we need to get back to a better education system. We need to get back to actively and intentionally funding it,” said Brandon McKay, the president of New Jersey Policy Perspective.

But Gov. Phil Murphy says the state is out of money. Many districts have lost funding since the pandemic, including West Orange which has lost $1.5 million despite the additional costs to reopen, and that’s with a virtual plan. They’ve invested more than $800,000 in new technology.

“All of our teachers have been equipped with two webcams, a wireless earbud to improve the sound quality for the students at home. All of our teachers will be equipped with upgraded laptops. And, of course, every student in the district, pre-K through 12, will be provided with a district-issued device if they don’t already have one,” Cascone said.

The West Orange plan will be submitted to the state next week, pending board approval.

But there’s been mounting pressure on Murphy from teachers’ unions and constituents to postpone the opening of schools. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka told residents he wouldn’t send anybody to school, even though the district has a hybrid plan. But if schools remain closed, investments in technology will be even more critical.