Superintendent’s Corner: The Way Forward

By on July 10, 2020


The past several months have been wrought with challenge and adversity at every turn. A public health pandemic has swept across the globe causing illness and inexplicable loss. Another consequence has been an economic downturn impacting families both near and far. Additionally, we have witnessed numerous protests and demonstrations demanding racial justice. We are living in challenging and unprecedented times where it is clear that as a society we have a lot of work ahead of us to get things right.

We have multiple challenges before us and we must work to carve the way forward. Our attitude and how we approach adversity in life matters. One such challenge we currently face is the redesign of how school will function when we return while maintaining a balance between the physical and mental well-being of our students and staff. Our district recently convened a task force of over 100 dedicated and creative stakeholders to examine what school may look like in this public health crisis. This task force is composed of 5 action teams (Curriculum & Instruction, Governance & Operations, Facilities, Technology, and Wellness) who are responsible for examining our areas of strength, the unique challenges ahead of us, and providing recommendations for a school reopening. It is important to note that we want to avoid presenting a plan now that may likely change because of so much uncertainty in the coming months.

The Verona Public School District is working on the development of a plan that will maintain the safety and well-being of our students and staff as the number one priority. We will proceed with caution as we design a return to in-person learning with the goal of having students physically present in school. In doing so, our teams are examining the recent guidance from the New Jersey Department of Education in the The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education . Our District is also reviewing guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics , Centers for Disease Control & Prevention , and numerous other resources that will help us in our redesign. We are grateful for the anticipated and long overdue guidance that our team may now reference. But truth be told, there are currently more questions than answers at this point in time.

As you peruse the guidance, I want our community to be prepared for an upcoming school year that will likely include a reduced number of students in school each day in order to maintain a safe and socially distanced learning environment. It is also probable that our District may adopt a modified schedule, inclusive of both physical and virtual learning environments for our students, with no school lunch period. Our task force is examining the development of cohorts of students in and out of the school building on an alternating daily or weekly basis that will allow us to reduce the number of students in the building at any given moment. Furthermore, our team is exploring live stream instruction so students may continue learning remotely on any given day.

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It goes without saying that a redesign of how schools operate with such short notice has brought along with it financial implications that our District is currently navigating. Reopening school in a safe and efficient manner will require adhering to health monitoring and cleaning/disinfecting protocols, the potential reduction, reallocation, and/or hiring of additional staff to implement health and safety protocols, providing personal protective equipment (PPE), and coordinating transportation, special education, and technology equipment needs. The cost of reopening schools safely will require additional unbudgeted expenses that have an impact on how schools operate. In addition, our District was recently informed of the potential reduction in State aid in the amount of $182,000. It has also been announced that our District will be receiving CARES Act funding which we will need to use to supplement unbudgeted expenses as a result of school closing from the past school year. It is also relevant to note the possibility of more fiscal reductions in the future. Simply stated, we do not have the necessary funding required to pull off what is being expected of our schools without additional government funding.

We are living in a high stakes world. There is a risk to keeping schools closed and likewise, a risk to reopening schools under the current conditions without the necessary precautions. There are a number of inextricable factors that influence so many aspects of how schools would need to operate under these circumstances. Decisions cannot be made in a vacuum.

As we move forward on this ambitious task, we will do so with prudence as we plan for multiple contingency plans in an effort to adapt to the ever-changing pandemic. We are currently witnessing an increase in the number of COVID cases across the country, as well as right here in our own Garden State. A lot can change between now and our first day of school on September 14th. This novel virus has created circumstances where school districts must be flexible and creative so we may easily pivot as circumstances continue to evolve. But I am heartened by the commitment of our staff and that so many of our administrators, teachers, nurses, counselors, child study team members, and parents have volunteered their time to participate in providing feedback to create our District plan.

Last but not least, I would be remiss if I did not address the elephant in the room. I recognize that my position will make some people uneasy and even upset. This pandemic is a very real and dire crisis. I have witnessed firsthand people in Verona, including some of our very own students, who are not social distancing or wearing masks. To do so is irresponsible and to take unnecessary risks, not only for oneself but for the health and well-being of others. We are only as strong as our weakest link. How effectively we respond to these guidelines now will directly correlate to how well Verona will be able to reopen our schools in September. This situation should not be one to be politicized, but rather what is in the best interests of keeping people safe. We know that students learn best when they are physically in school. But how well we do in the coming weeks and months will determine if we will reopen our schools or continue virtual, remote learning for an extended period of time.

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We recognize the hardships this imposes on our students, staff, and families and our planning will have consideration for how our decisions will impact working parents. Please understand that we are planning to maintain the high level of instruction we have all come to expect while balancing the competing demands and challenges ahead of us. We are in the preliminary stages and hope to provide additional insight and guidance in the coming weeks by no later than mid-August. This situation will require constant monitoring and maximum flexibility. Thank you for your partnership, patience, and understanding as we work through the details to achieve our goals.

All my best,

Dr. Rui Dionisio
Superintendent of Schools

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