Union County superintendents react to school closures in New Jersey

UNION COUNTY, NJ — Gov. Phil Murphy announced May 4 that all New Jersey schools will remain closed throughout the remainder of the school year in an effort to stamp out the coronavirus outbreak and further flatten the curve.

As a result, LocalSource spoke with several superintendents in Union County, who provided some insight on their plans to navigate this situation.

Superintendent of Rahway Public Schools Patricia Camp shared her thoughts on the closure of schools throughout the remainder of the school year and how this news alters district plans.

“We’re an educational institution and we follow the Department of Health guidelines. I agree with the decision and I’m glad it was made now,” Camp said via phone interview on May 9. “We know that the schools are closed in early May rather than dragging out the decision, thinking we’re going back. I just don’t think it’s feasible we can bring normal school back.

“It helps us plan better,” she continued. “Before, you had to plan for a reopen. It helps because it makes things predictable for students and teachers. At least they know they’re doing remote learning for the rest of the school year, so it does help.”

With schools closed, Rahway Public Schools is working to support students as they learn at home and educators as they teach remotely.

“We closed down in phases to support the staff; we sent the kids home with review packets,” Camp said. “Then, during that time, the kids were doing review work, and the staff were getting up to speed and comfortable with doing remote teaching. They’re doing a spectacular job. We also had to pass out Chromebooks for 4,000 students within the district.”

According to Camp, the district has also been working to provide Wi-Fi hotspots for students who do not ordinarily have an internet connection at home.

“For mental health, we have listed on the website a list of mental health resources — contact information for various mental health resources and our own staff, who are all available to meet virtually, to help,” Camp said. “We encourage parents and families to reach out to the teachers as a resource as well, connecting to teachers through email or the teacher’s website through Google Classroom.”

Many Rahway residents are wondering what this will mean for high school graduation.

“This is still a work in progress,” Camp said. “On May 8, we’ve received guidance from the state Department of Education stating that there are no in-person graduations that can happen. It has to be virtual. This is a milestone for a lot of students. It breaks our hearts to not be able to do it, but health and safety is more important.”

Facing the same struggle, Clark Superintendent of Schools Edward Grande mentioned how understanding the seniors are of the situation; nevertheless, they are disappointed.

“While we certainly understand the need to be closed to protect everyone’s health, we are disappointed that we will not be physically together again this school year,” Grande said on May 7. “The extended closure impacts our more typical end-of-year activities, and therefore we are looking for ways to remotely conduct as many of these as possible. We also now need to plan for students picking up and dropping off items.”

Supporting students is important now more than ever due to the challenges of remote education and deferred milestone celebrations.

“Our school counselors and child study team members have been remotely providing the needed additional supports to our students,” Grande said. “As for high school graduations, we are still awaiting additional guidance from the state before deciding on a final plan. We have, however, been brainstorming various options for some time now.”

Summit Superintendent of Schools June Chang had similar concerns to Grande’s.

“I’m sure every educator shares the same sentiments that it was disappointing to hear in-person instruction was canceled for the remainder of the school year,” Chang said on May 8. “We miss physically seeing our students and colleagues, but we understand the decision was made with the health and safety of our students and staff at the forefront.”

Despite the closure announcement, Chang is determined to keep Summit’s academic focuses on track.

“The news doesn’t change our district’s mission, which is to support and sustain an excellent system of learning that engages all students in compelling work,” Chang said. “It may be through a different platform, but our plans to provide a well-rounded education and a love of learning remain the same.”

In addition to focusing on the educational aspect, the Summit School District is also there to support students.

“Our staff works tirelessly to provide support in academics as well as social-emotional learning and mental health,” Chang said. “Our counseling team created a Virtual Relaxation Room with a plethora of resources to support students and families during remote learning. We also have an incredible special services team, with staff members who ensure all students continue to feel connected with their teachers. Our work never stops when it comes to helping every student in the district, whether it’s in person or remotely.”

Like other districts, Summit wants to honor their high school graduates the right way.

“While our administrators are actively preparing contingency plans for end-of-the-year events, we will follow guidelines from local and state agencies,” Chang said. “We are expected to and will continue to follow executive orders and social distancing directives, but we are working hard to create ways to responsibly celebrate these milestones for our seniors. These are important moments, and we want to honor the accomplishments of the Class of 2020.”

Kenilworth Superintendent of Schools Kyle Arlington described how sad the news of school closures was for the community.

“I think with the announcement that schools are closed for the rest of the year came a profound sense of sadness for many students and teachers,” Arlington said on May 9. “Our teachers are actively connecting with students to check in on their social-emotional needs, but there is still a sense of loss that accompanied the announcement.

“Kenilworth is lucky to have a dedicated community of students, teachers and parents,” he continued. “Our parent groups, along with our teachers and administrators, are actively planning to reschedule or plan for in alternate ways special end-of-year celebrations. We realize that the community needs a sense of closure that comes along with the end of the school year. We want to plan for that as best as we can.”

Kenilworth schools are also working to support students.

“We realize that our return to school will come with the need to care not only for our community’s physical health needs but their mental health needs, too,” Arlington said. “So, our crisis team, along with school counselors and child study team members, which are school psychologists, social workers, etc., are actively meeting to plan our interventions and courses of action. While in remote-learning mode, our teachers and counselors are actively checking in with students to provide social, emotional and mental health support.”

Regarding the high school graduates of Kenilworth, Arlington said the soon-to-be graduates and their families deserve to celebrate their accomplishments.

“On Friday, the NJDOE released a broadcast in which they reminded districts that in-person graduations violate Gov. Murphy’s Executive Order 107. So, we are planning a virtual graduation,” Arlington said. “We are also anxious to plan some type of in-person ceremony if permissible, whenever social-distancing restrictions are relaxed enough for us to do so. Our graduates and their families deserve this.”

Though saddened by the continued closure, Linden Superintendent of Schools Denise Cleary said her district is prepared.

“We had planned all along as though we would continue with home learning through the end of the school year, but it was still sad to hear the official announcement from Gov. Murphy,” Cleary said on May 8. “Our students and staff members are eager to get back into school and see their friends and colleagues. There are so many things that students are missing out on by not being in school. Our Linden High School seniors are missing out on prom, a live graduation, senior awards and senior banquet. Our eighth-graders and fifth-graders are missing out on sports, concerts and plays, and the list goes on. But our staff members are so incredibly dedicated, and I have been astounded at the resiliency and good spirits of our students and their families throughout this difficult time. Our district really is a family, and that is how we’re getting through it.”

Despite this news, Cleary said the district continues to support its students by making sure they have the tools to work from home.

“Our plans have not changed because of the announcement,” Cleary said. “We continue to support students in their academic and their emotional needs and will continue to do so whether in person or through technology.

“From the very beginning of remote learning, we have made sure that students have had the tools they need to continue their schoolwork at home,” she continued. “We are a one-to-one district, meaning that every student is given an iPad, tablet or MacBook Air laptop at the start of school. That has made a great difference in eliminating the technological divide that many districts have struggled with. Our district maintains a technology help line for any issues that arise with the students’ devices. Our school counselors and medical staff have maintained contact to ensure that our students’ well-being is looked after at home, and we offer grab-and-go lunches every weekday for any student who needs one, to make sure no student is going hungry because they are not in school.”

Concerning high school graduations, according to Cleary, Linden seniors merit a celebration.

“Our seniors deserve as much celebration and praise as we can possibly give them, despite these extraordinary circumstances,” Cleary said. “They have worked 13 years to get to this point, and under no circumstances do we want them to feel that has been forgotten or overlooked. We have a committee of administrators and teachers working on a plan to do all that we can to celebrate the Class of 2020. The details are not ironed out yet, but we will be holding a virtual graduation for students, and we are making arrangements to make sure our seniors get their normal keepsakes, including yearbooks and caps and gowns. We are also looking into holding a public celebration in the future, after social-distancing rules are eased.”

In Hillside, Superintendent of Schools Robert Gregory admitted that the news sparked mixed emotions.

“We miss our staff and students dearly, but it was necessary,” Gregory said on May 10. “Their health and safety — and that of every American — is of paramount importance. We won’t know exactly how this will impact our school communities until later and have continued to plan how we operate them remotely. Our new challenge is to successfully reopen them.”

Like many of his counterparts, Gregory saw this decision coming.

“Three weeks into school closures, we began to realize this could be our new reality and started planning as such,” Gregory said. “We were hoping we’d be able to proceed with end-of-the-year events and ceremonies for staff and students towards the latter portion of June. Thus, we are deeply saddened that our school communities won’t get to experience them this year. We’ve had to rethink our summer programs to see what we can offer virtually, moreover, rethink how we hire new employees and offer professional development and support to existing staff.”

Hillside is committed to supporting its students through this global crisis, Gregory affirmed.

“Our teachers, guidance counselors and school leaders are working around the clock to support students and their families through this pandemic,” Gregory said. “Teachers arrange weekly check-ins with families, and, when challenges present themselves, they refer them to our guidance counselors and support staff, who intervene virtually. Parents have been resilient through this crisis, communicating their needs to our teachers and school leaders. Our teachers also conduct one-to-one and group tutorials on Fridays for students in need of additional support.

“We’ve also had challenges connecting with a small percentage of our students and have conducted wellness visits at their homes to offer support,” he continued. “We’ve also distributed technology to families who have requested devices. In some cases, families prefer hard copies of instructional materials vs. an online platform. We’ve accommodated them by mailing home student work. Like every district in New Jersey, we continue to distribute meals to eligible families, in addition to conducting school spirit weeks, where our staff and students create video montages to support one another through this global crisis.”

Even though high school graduations aren’t likely, Hillside wants to highlight and celebrate its graduating seniors.

“Executive Order No. 107 prohibits gatherings of individuals for parties, celebrations and other social events, which includes all in-person graduation ceremonies,” Gregory said. “We want to highlight and celebrate the Class of 2020 and are finalizing our graduation plans. Our seniors have weighed in on the decision through a survey. We hope to announce our plans in the coming week.”

Regarding the disappointing news, Cranford Superintendent of Schools Scott Rubin echoed the same sentiment as his peers.

“Everyone in our school community misses one another, and we were hoping we could welcome students back in-person, if only for a little while, prior to school ending in June,” Rubin said on May 10. “However, safety is everyone’s No. 1 priority, and we realize that returning at this moment is not possible, given the status of the pandemic. We are resilient and we will get through this together.”

Adapting to distance learning, Rubin said the closure news has altered plans.

“We recently conducted a survey of our community to gain feedback on the emergency education distance-learning plan that is currently in place, and an overwhelming majority responded positively with regard to their overall virtual learning experience. Therefore, the current plan will largely stay intact, but we will still continue to monitor, reflect and seek out enhancements.”

Cranford, too, supports its students through these unpredictable times.

“In addition to daily live interactions with staff, the district reaches out to each family weekly to provide additional support,” Rubin said. “The counseling staff also created a ‘School Counseling Corner’ website to provide resources for students, parents/guardians and community members during this challenging time.”

Akin to other districts in the state, though Cranford High School will not be able to hold an in-person graduation ceremony this June, future ceremonies are underway.

“The New Jersey Department of Education and the state director of emergency management recently released guidance on graduation ceremonies,” Rubin said. “Unfortunately, only virtual graduation ceremonies are permitted to be planned at this time. Therefore, we are working hard to create a very special and memorable virtual experience of which our senior students, parents/guardians and community members will be proud. The district will also provide an in-person ceremony as soon as practicable and in accordance with state law.”