Pressure Builds on Murphy To Keep Schools Closed and Go All-Remote

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Governor Phil Murphy is trying to juggle the academic needs of schoolchildren, valid health concerns of teachers, and a sudden uptick of Covid-19 cases as we approach the first day of school. You’ve got to admire his gumption but, truth be told, he’s been badly served by his NJ Department of Education (okay, he and NJEA chose Lamont Repollet as Commissioner) in two ways that directly affect how students will learn and parents will maneuver this year.

First, the DOE was justifiably panned for its “lazy,” “incomplete,” and “contradictory” school reopening guidance. Second, Repollet told the NJ State Legislature that about 90,000 children were without access to broadband internet and/or a laptop and schools should take care of that without oversight. Oops. The number of kids without access is 230,000, or one out of six children, disproportionately poor and of color, and we don’t have the money to bridge the gap. (Why the miscount? Why so many? Why is NJ-one of the worst states in the country for closing what’s called the “digital divide?” One possible reason: upon his appointment Repollet dismantled the state’s Office of Educational Technology. See here for details.)

The DOE guidance issued in mid-June titled “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery” mandates that “[d]istricts’ reopening plans must account for resuming in-person instruction in some capacity.” Last week, desperately trying to keep those balls in the air, Gov. Murphy reversed the DOE’s initial guidance and said that all schools must provide the option of full-time remote instruction but there must be some in-person instruction available for all families. On Monday he announced that all students must wear masks in school, even while in classrooms seated six feet apart.

How does that work logistically, technically, fiscally, equitably?

Nobody knows.

And, remember, all these additional mandates have trickled in after schools submitted reopening plans.

Hence the pushback. Here’s a sampling.

NJEA President Marie Blistan:

We are still the only country in the world trying to reopen schools when the numbers are increasing…It’s not plausible if you want to have health and safety.”

Toms River Superintendent David Healy:

“We are not opening in September, no district is opening in September. It is fiscally and financially impossible, we cannot do it. At most you will have a hybrid. But financially and logistically it is almost impossible, you just can’t do it…Based on everything we are aware of and the positions taken by school boards and NJEA (the teachers union), it appears that it would be highly unlikely that there will be any level of in-person instruction, either a hybrid model or a full-time model. My sense is there is no way we are opening full-time or even part-time in September. That is a logical prediction.”

Freehold Township Superintendent Charles Sampson:

Vorhees Superintendent David Gentile:

Marlboro schools Superintendent Eric Hibbs:

Lawnside Superintendent Ronn Johnson:

”The real issue is not going to be the option for parents, but is the governor going to be willing to keep schools closed, as many still feel in-person instruction is unsafe? We were always going to offer the option for parents to keep their children home and receive remote instruction.”

Dr. Lawrence Kleinman of Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School:

“I am worried about the consequences of kids being isolated from social environments. But those benefits have to be balanced against the potential risk for safety and there’s a lot of reasons not to do in-person school.”

Dan Epstein, President of Somerset County Education Association:

“In New Jersey, indoor dining is still unsafe, so how can we be ready to send our children and educators into classrooms, hallways, restrooms, and buses?”

Laurie Schorno, Morris County Council of Education Association:

“We all want to get back to our classrooms and get back to normal with all the lessons, activities, field trips, and rites of passage. But let’s be honest, there are too many remaining unanswered questions about the risks of reopening.”

Frank Belluscio, NJ School Boards Deputy Executive Director:

Belluscio now says the association may ask the governor to hold off reopening schools if New Jersey’s COVID cases increase or schools are unable to guarantee student and teacher safety. “If conditions warrant, we would not hesitate to take a similar position concerning a September reopening,” Belluscio said.

Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt, chair of the Assembly Education Committee:

“There are many issues, and my personal opinion is that we should be possibly delaying school opening. I’m very concerned about the flu season hitting in general and how that normally affects our schools. I’m very concerned about the quality of our schools and the HVAC.”

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey:

“As a former board of education member and a public health nurse, I understand that New Jersey has made strong progress in combating COVID-19, but reopening schools for in-person instruction would feel like a step backward at this time.”

Lakewood parent Rafaela Hernández (where schools are opening for full-time, in-school learning, despite union objections):

“More people are going to be running risks with so many kids together. Where are they going to put them so they can socially distance? I’m not sure that the school district or even us as parents really understand this virus yet. It’s too early.” 

New Jersey teacher Carol Gold (in comments to a recent NJLB post):

We understand that parents want to resume a sense of normalcy for their children. We want that too. But we all need to understand the new realities of classrooms in the age of Covid. As a teacher for the last twenty-four years I can attest that educators have spent the last decade engaged in an effort to emphasize the social and emotional development of our students.

Simply put, we understand now more than ever that for students to learn they must feel safe, welcome, and part of the community. How exactly will they do that with desks spaced 6 ft apart? How will they feel as they are constantly reminded to stay apart from their friends, and to not touch their masks, and to not share supplies and keep to their plexiglass “personal space” in the classroom? How will that work exactly, with kindergarteners?
Many schools will require a “door to door” mask policy. The teacher will be wearing a mask and face shield. One to one help will be restricted under the guidelines. Group work and labs with shared supplies will not occur. The simple gesture of a reassuring smile or fist bump will vanish.

The school day may be abbreviated with students either eating lunch at home, getting a boxed lunch to take home, or eating in their classroom. Going to the bathroom will now require the careful orchestration and logistics of an air traffic controller at Newark Airport.

Precious instructional time will be lost to monitor sanitizing and compliance to social distancing and mask wearing. Socially and emotionally every single person – both students and adults – present in these buildings under theseconditions will be totally stressed out all the time. Yet, even with all these draconian measures, there is still no guarantee that students will be safe from Covid-19.

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