Illustration by Eli Weitzman ('20)
It has been, to say the least, an eventful week for the Cherry Hill School District. One week ago, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy advised against gathering in groups of 50 or more. At 1:30 p.m. last Friday, Superintendent Dr. Joe Meloche announced that schools would remain open. About four hours later, students from all of the district’s 19 schools received calls announcing that the district would close until March 30.
Since then, the district has put into place a Continuity of Learning Plan, which means every day of remote learning will count toward the state-mandated 180 days of in-school instruction. Lunches and Chromebooks have been handed out en masse this week, and all the district’s facilities are closed as of this afternoon. Murphy has closed schools until further notice, meaning that the date at which students and teachers return to school lies entirely in the state’s hands now.
In the spirit of social distancing, I spoke with Dr. Meloche by telephone Thursday evening to get some answers to the more burning questions on the minds of the East community and the Cherry Hill community at-large. Meloche and I spoke from 5:09 p.m. to 5:32 p.m., and given the fast-paced nature of updates, it is important to note that both my questions and Meloche’s answers are based on the information we had during those 23 minutes. Meloche’s answers have been edited for brevity and clarity, but none of the original meaning has been changed.
Aine Pierre (‘20)/Eastside Editor-in-Chief: Let’s start with last Friday and the will-we, won’t-we close, what happened?
Dr. Joseph Meloche, Superintendent of Schools: In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been frustrated with the flow of information from the county. I know that everybody is doing their job and everybody’s looking out for what they’re looking out for, but my real frustration came from the lack of clarity that came from the state level, when…there was a call out to Burlington County School Districts that they were all being closed for 30 days as a directive from the [Burlington County] Department of Health, that’s when I hit my frustration point.
Then and…the Continuity of Learning Plan which the Department of Ed put out an opportunity for us to construct…without those and without direction that we had to close, the districts would run the risk of having to make the days up, so that really became the threshold that we had to try to get by.
And then Burlington County made the announcement, and listening to the governor’s speech last Friday…his line, ‘it’s not a question if the schools are going to close, it’s when the schools are going to close,’ and all of that put together is why I made the determination Friday evening of we’re gonna close the schools…I didn’t think it was fair for the community to wait any longer for what was going to be an inevitable determination; I didn’t think it was healthy for students, for teachers, for staff, for parents to have to go through that weekend.
AP: To what extent did backlash on social media influence your decision?
JM: Backlash is always something that’s there. I will tell you that I got a lot of emails…it was more of an effect of the…here’s my thoughts, here’s my experience. I try to brush off to a certain extent the diatribes with inappropriate comments on social media. That was certainly on my mind, but it wasn’t the determinant factor…I didn’t want the district…to be punished in some way for not following guidelines…that was part of the determination when we did not initially close.
AP: What do you think the chances are that we go back on March 30?
JM: At this point, it’s up to [Murphy] to say when schools are going to reopen…I honestly don’t believe we’ll be in school on March 30. In fact, I’ll say more in my message tomorrow…but that’s why we put it out that schools are closed until further notice. Nothing has come through the Department [of Health] or governor’s office, lots of speculation for sure, and I wouldn’t even tell you that I know what that would even look like. Late April, Early May is gonna be my guess. There’s a lot that’s gotta take place in the next two weeks, in the next four weeks. I would say for sure that I don’t think we’ll be back before Spring Break…but that’s all speculation…it’s still up in the air.
AP: Do you think the Continuity of Learning Plan holds up to that extent of extended absence?
JM: I will tell you that I think that the plan is going to have to evolve over the next couple of weeks that we’re out….I think that there needs to be an evolution in terms of providing learning opportunities for students.
AP: Going further into the Continuity of Learning plan, how have things been going with Chromebook distribution? How many have we distributed? Do you think we reached everybody?
JM: We gave out about 800 on Monday and today was about 1,075. So we gave out a ton of Chromebooks. Have we reached everybody? I think we reached the majority – I will never say that we reached everybody…but I’d say we did a pretty decent job of reaching everybody that we could. We sent messages out via email, via text message, to parents’ phones whose numbers we had in the system, posts on social media. The deployment of the devices today I was able to watch in the parking lot we had seven stations set up here at Malberg, the technology team; buildings, grounds and maintenance guys; administrators, secretaries…our campus police, Mr. Bierao the director of athletics we were all involved…It was literally less than three minutes from the time someone pulled into the parking lot to get their Chromebook and when they pulled out of the parking lot. We gave out more than 500 in the first hour, which is really unbelievable. So I’m really proud of the work that all of us did and the plan that Dr. Mayhan put together to pull it all together.
AP: What about lunches? How has distribution been going and do you foresee any issues with Aramark or with getting lunches to kids? How many have been given out?
JM: Aramark has been very supportive and very involved. The food service guys are the ones who are doing it and prepping everything for us. I do not have a count of lunches today. I know on Tuesday we distributed about 550 meals, so figure two breakfasts and two lunches for each child that came through, so close to 150 students on Tuesday. I’ve seen a report that says more were distributed today, but I’ve not yet seen a number on it…This week was Tuesday and Thursday, next week will be Monday, Wednesday, Friday.
AP: What should we be looking out for in the next few weeks?
JM: I am sure that there are families whose financial situations are changing. We shared again how to apply for free/reduced lunch, I think that those numbers will increase the longer we are out. I think that there are families that are going to be impacted.
One strength is people looking out for one another. You folks in high school have relationships with advisers and programs and one another, I think that’s incredibly important. And I think for the adults [too], you know one of the things we’ve updated…[is] mental health resources for adults and school-aged children…We’re social beings, we’re not used to being cooped up in the house…we need to really come together. I think its important for you guys to talk about it and continue to do that moving forward.
AP: What about Junior Prom, Senior Prom, and Graduation?
JM: I’m not ready to make a determination about that, that’s probably a few weeks down the road…when we have information about a return date. If we had to cancel anything like that, part of the discussion would be to schedule or reschedule, because…these are momentous indelible occasions and like anything that has to be cancelled, part of the discussion is the rescheduling of it.
AP: But what if the CDC continues to prohibit gatherings of over 50 until July or August, do you have a plan for events like graduation?
JM: Right now I don’t other than to say that eventually we will have a discussion on what that would look like and how we can honor the students. We’ve discussed scenarios, nothing that’s ready to be made public…the PTA asked me if they should continue with their planning for Project Graduation and I said yes…so we’re still looking at…June 16.
AP: What’s your message to the district?
JM: Follow the Continuity of Learning Plan, create a daily structure for themselves in terms of how they’re looking at their work and how they’re doing their work. Most important is to take care of themselves…find structure in your day, it’s not about spending 12 hours in front of a computer…have quiet time, exercise, and try something new. Find the good that occurs in each day and make connections. Like I said earlier in the conversation, we’re social beasts….keeping those connections is very important for all of us.
AP: Just to follow up on that, because a lot of students feel smothered by their homework right now. Will there be guidelines put in place limiting the amount of homework?
JM: I would say there will probably be guidelines. I would also say to let your teachers know – and again, you guys are the ones who are living it – if you feel wrapped up for all those hours, let your principals know, let the teachers know for sure, but let the principals know. These are special times, and it’s not my expectation that you’re spending 12 hours a day doing homework. Learning is not about volume, it’s not about volume at all…as the plan evolves, it’s something for sure that we will talk about, it’s something that I’ll talk about with the administrators, but I would tell you just to make sure you’re giving that feedback to teachers and to others.
For more coverage from Eastside on the COVID-19 pandemic, please be sure to check out eastside-online.org/covid19.