Orange Schools’ administration announced their detailed plan to safely reopen schools to all students in late August. The plan was a collaboration of input of a committee of roughly two dozen administrators, board of education members, teachers and representatives from the community.
Surveys were held in the spring, at the end of the school year and again in July, to help the district plan for potential needs for both students and staff, come fall. Out of 792 responses to a district-wide survey, nearly 73% of respondents said they would send their children back to school in the fall. Just over 19% said they were unsure and 2.9% said they would not send their children back in the fall.
“I have great appreciation for the challenges you have dealt with for the past months and in the months that we’re facing together,” Superintendent of Schools Vince Scarpetti said of the parents who were watching the board of education meeting, which was held in-person and streamed on YouTube Monday, July 20. “We are not only in a health pandemic, but in an education emergency,” Scarpetti says. “We are looking at this from a different lens then we ever have before. We have a lot to consider: the implications on the facilities, operations, teaching and learning. The plan must exercise equity, access, and support to the communities.”
Mike Gray, Director of Business and Operations, detailed the district’s mitigation strategies, which include masks being worn by all students. “The challenge here is, if you’ve been to a store lately, you have to wear a face covering. If you go into BJ’s, they’re wiping down the carriage and giving you hand sanitizers. These are mitigation strategies that we’re all experiencing now in our real lives. The challenge is putting this into the context of our school buildings,” he says.
Classroom teachers will schedule mask breaks throughout the day and will also provide opportunity for children to take individual breaks as needed. Based on guidance from the Department of Public Health, school buildings will be cleaned and disinfected, focusing on doorknobs, hand railings, sinks, toilets, fixtures, light switches, cover plates and many more items. “All efforts will be made in the schools to minimize contact with these high-touch surfaces,” Gray says, adding, “We will talk to children to make sure they’re not touching their neighbor’s desks or materials and that they’re staying in their own spots.”
Sanitizer stations are being added throughout the schools. “Hygiene and cleaning will be a community event. It will be that partnership between home and school,” Gray says. Students will spend their days in cohorts with the same students daily in an effort to help prevent too much contact with other children and adults.
In addition to non-classroom spaces in Orange schools, the district has looked into other community spaces such as at the former Holy Infant School and at High Plains Community Center in the event that those spaces are needed in order to properly socially distance students.
Meanwhile, in Orange Schools, custodians have been deep cleaning the schools since students were let out in mid-March. “They started with opening light fixtures and working their way down to the floors and all of the furniture before it came back into the room. They’ve been doing a very thorough deep cleaning of the classrooms, restrooms, hallways, and the office areas, so we will certainly be ready for the opening of school as far as room cleanliness is concerned,” Gray says.
An automated ventilation system will turn fans on at 5 a.m. in all classrooms, circulating fresh air so that there is no ambient, stagnant air in the classroom. “Fans are going to run continuously during the school day to circulate fresh air through the classrooms. We are going to be flushing our classrooms with as much fresh air as possible,” he says. “I can pull up any classroom in the district on my computer and can look at the heating and ventilation in that room; I can look at what the temperature is. We’re able to monitor and inspect all of the actuators, dampers and air handlers to make sure that the computer is actually doing what it says it is doing.” This summer, all duct work is being cleaned in all school buildings. “We’re really targeting our ventilation systems to make sure that the air that we’re supplying our classrooms and larger areas is as clean as it can be,” Gray says.
Some changes will be more visible to students and their families. The district is not expecting to have parent or other volunteers in classrooms, or any outside clubs or groups, at least for the time being. Students will eat lunches in their classrooms with their cohorts, with a lunch prepared in the cafeteria, packaged and delivered to the classroom.
Transportation will be in what’s called ‘low status’ mode, where buses can operate with a full load, but with restrictions in place including masks required for all drivers and passengers and students boarding from the back of the bus to the front in order to eliminate passing other students. Parents will be encouraged to transport students to school whenever possible. “In preliminary survey results, about 55% of families said they would be riding the bus and 45% said parents will provide transportation,” Gray says.
Scarpetti acknowledges that a great deal of minutia went into the overall plan. “Things that may seem very minor are going to create a huge effect to us to do anything that we can to have a clean and healthy building,” Scarpetti says.
By Melissa Nicefaro – Orange Town News Correspondent