Superintendent: Morristown High pandemic grads will get ‘memorable’ ceremony

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Nobody anticipated a pandemic would drive students from classrooms to their home computers all over the country this spring.

But in the Morris School District, families can be sure of two things:

Students’ academic instruction won’t suffer online.  And Morristown High School seniors who may be deprived of proms and other rites of passage still will be treated to “something memorable,” to compensate for disruptions they probably would rather forget.

That’s according to Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast.

“We’re exploring every possibility for end-of-year ceremonies. We’re going to make sure it’s memorable, and everyone feels honored. We will have a moment of joy where everyone can celebrate together,” he promised the school board via teleconference on Monday.

When and where such an event might occur is anyone’s guess. During Monday’s marathon two-and-a-half hour videoconference–which included adoption of a $128 million budget--the superintendent raised the specter of schools not reopening in September for next year’s seniors.

Board President Nancy Bangiola expressed condolences to the Class of ’20, parents and teachers.

“We know that you had expectations for a wonderful spring, and our hearts are breaking for you,” Bangiola said.

But falling behind academically “is not something people have to worry about,”  Pendergrast said. When the district closed its doors after classes on March 13, between 85 and 90 percent of the curriculum for the year already had been completed, he said.

The remaining weeks ordinarily are devoted largely to state testing, and reinforcing prior lessons, he said.

While the switch to online instruction has not been glitch-free– district-issued Chromebooks have proven susceptible to spilled coffee and gravity, and WiFi has been spotty for some families — Pendergrast said he’s proud of how the staff has risen to the occasion.

“We went from 5,200 students in 10 buildings, to 5,200 students learning in 3,000 homes. It was a massive effort by so many people,” he said.

A former history teacher, Pendergrast compared the pandemic’s medical workers and district employees to heroes of Bunker Hill and the beaches of Normandy.

“Under the shadow of an alarming pandemic…our faculty and staff put our students and the mission first. They have been working long, long hours under unprecedented conditions to completely re-conceptualize their instructional plans for a virtual environment. They all of a sudden became IT experts, and curriculum experts.”

Guidance counselors and teachers also have striven to be sensitive to home situations that may affect students’ academic performance, as families deal with illness, layoffs and other issues stemming from the coronavirus and social-distancing, Pendergrast said.

The superintendent’s first message to parents about the novel coronavirus was on Feb. 5.  To that point, “we were having a pretty fantastic year,” he said.

Planning for online instruction began in earnest that month, as a precaution, Pendergrast said.

Initially, the decision to close schools rested with health officials. When that authority was shifted to superintendents in mid-March, Pendergrast said he opted for closure “in five seconds.”

Some kids actually thrive in this new, all-virtual environment–which Pendergrast quickly noted is not meant to replace the traditional classroom experience.

It’s a mistake “to think that you try to perfectly replicate what’s happening in a classroom, on a computer…You don’t want to try to do that. You want to zero in on high- quality learning. That’s what we’re focused on,” he said.

Teachers and students already enjoyed familiarity with the process. For several years, the district has given Chromebooks to every student in the high school and Frelinghuysen Middle School.

Pupils in the lower grades have been sharing Chromebooks with siblings. Pendergrast said the district has been working to obtain more laptops for them, a topic that stirred the evening’s only tense moments.

Board member Meredith Davidson suggested the district could do more online to alert parents about the availability of these machines.

When she raised the issue again at the close of the long session, Pendergrast, whose calm demeanor has been a hallmark of a five-year tenure that saw him win New Jersey Superintendent of the Year honors last fall, could not hide his exasperation.

Defending his team’s efforts, Pendergrast expressed incredulity that Davidson was calling for more computers moments after she voted against the 2020-21 school budget. Bangiola cut short the discussion, drawing the virtual meeting to a close.

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