Support SOMSD Students: Improve the District's Remote Learning Plan

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To the Essex County Office of Education and New Jersey Department of Education: 

We, the undersigned, are parents, guardians, students and concerned residents of the South Orange-Maplewood (NJ) School District ("SOSMD"). 

Last night, May 18, 2020, the SOMSD Board of Education (the “Board”) approved its School Health-Related Closure Plan (the “Plan”).  The Plan, which is 37 pages long, was posted on the District’s website without any prior direct notice to parents at 5:30pm in the afternoon, an hour and a half prior to the Board’s scheduled 7:00 pm meeting.  This provided no meaningful opportunity for the community to respond and ignored the concerns previously submitted to the Board in correspondence signed by approximately 300 SOMSD parents.

Among many troubling details, the Plan (which can be found here) provides that for so long as the current public health crisis continues:    

  • From Kindergarten through Second Grade, students are to receive recorded instruction only, with no live instruction (p. 17, “Online Learning Platforms by Grade Level”); 
  • For older students, the District “recommends that teachers use pre-recorded lessons when classes are scheduled,” and that, “if a teacher chooses to lead live lessons, they are to record the live lesson and upload it to Google Classroom so that students who could not attend the live lesson will have the opportunity to participate in the lesson at a later time in the day.” This preference for asynchronous learning over live interactive teaching denies students the opportunity to engage with their teachers, ask questions, and participate in discussions, all of which are critical components of instruction. (p. 4, “Component 1: Equitable Access to Instruction Plan”; emphasis added); 
  • The District will curtail individualized services and instruction to all students with IEPs by (i) restricting access to direct instruction by grade level and (ii) inexplicably providing no related direct virtual services to students that are not eligible for Extended School Year (ESY). (p. 9-11, “Component 2: Addressing Special Education Needs Plan”); and
  • Daily hours of instruction for all students will be capped at a maximum of 4 hours, with no stated minimum (p. 15, “Teacher Responsibilities”). 

In short, concerned parents called for transparency in the District’s distance learning planning, for live instruction to be provided to students, and for coherent, consistent instructions to teachers as to the scope of their responsibilities during the current public health crisis.  Rather than do so, the District developed a Plan without providing meaningful transparency or opportunity for community feedback, which actually calls for restrictions on live education, lacks clear requirements relating to the quality and duration of instruction, and offers IEP services based on whether or not a student receives Extended School Year services.

Dr. Ronald Taylor, the District’s superintendent, has justified the Plan by saying that, “access and equity are not simply concerns for children and parents, but for teachers and their families as well,” and by insisting that any concerns voiced by the community in favor of increased daily hours of instruction were, "one-sided," and insufficiently sensitive to the personal demands of District faculty. While parents in the SOMSD support teachers and understand the difficulties inherent to working in the current environment, the District’s choice to not only accept but affirmatively recommend that no live instruction be provided to its students is unacceptable.  Prerecorded videos, links to worksheets and YouTube or Kahn academy videos do not constitute adequate instruction. Such activities fail to satisfy the NJDOE’s guidance that school districts follow N.J.A.C. 6A:16-10.1(c), requiring that instruction be provided by certified teachers.

The undersigned find the District’s Plan to be an abrogation of the District’s responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient education to all its students and a willful failure to provide special education and related services to students with IEPs.  The Plan unquestionably fails to fulfill the mandate by the NJDOE, as set forth in a May 5, 2020 notice to all New Jersey public school districts, that each district produce a crisis contingency plan to, "maximize student growth and learning to the greatest extent possible."  Given this failure, the Plan violates both the New Jersey Constitution and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). 

We request that the Essex County Office of Education and New Jersey Department of Education, which exercise supervisory authority over the South Orange Maplewood School District, reject the District’s Plan and provide direct oversight to ensure that an appropriate school closure plan is developed.