Barring a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment that can be ready by the fall, New Jersey schools are faced with the challenge of figuring out how to reopen without jeopardizing the safety of students and staff.
State health and education officials are currently discussing how school will return and, according to Gov. Phil Murphy, there could be a decision by mid-June on when buildings will reopen to students.
The New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) recently provided its own blueprint for what’s needed to get students back in the classroom, a strategy that could involve changes to the traditional school schedule, increased sanitary measures and face mask requirements.
A 30-page report released May 20 highlights issues districts face, as well as provides recommendations for how the state and schools should proceed.
Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA’s executive director, said the report “draws on viewpoints of New Jersey local school officials, research in education, medicine and public health and the experience of other nations in reopening schools” and aims to “help school districts further define challenges” and “develop strategies to meet them.”
“In the two months since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of our public schools, New Jersey’s education community has made a valiant effort to transition our students to digital learning,” he said.
New School Normal
The next step, he said, may pose an even greater challenge as districts try to establish “a new normal” in the midst of a global pandemic caused by a virus that “will likely still be present when schools finally do reopen.”
As part of the report, the NJSBA surveyed 1,000 school board members, superintendents and administrators across the state in April, posing the question: “What strategies is your district considering to provide classroom instruction while social distancing?”
The responses were as follows:
- Split sessions: 23.7%
- Six-day school week: 4.8%
- Alternating between in-person and remote instruction periods: 29.1%
- Use of non-classroom areas for instruction: 21.2%
- Flipped classroom model (ex: online lectures viewed at home and projects/learning activities in class during the day): 21.2%
Schools Want Guidance
Many of the respondents, the report noted, “were uncertain about what the future holds and what would be required of their districts” and want more guidance from the state.
West Windsor-Plainsboro Superintendent David Aderhold, who serves as president of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, said he and his fellow administrators have “hundreds of questions” about how to move forward.
There are no answers yet on traditional activities, such as plays, concerts, dances and sports. According to the report, a northern New Jersey superintendent, in an interview with NJSBA, said he was aware that campus life, as students have known it, could be suspended in the fall, but he didn’t want to say too much too soon.
“We don’t want to make things too dark for them,” he said
Steven Gardberg, business administrator for the Boonton Town Public Schools in Morris County, expressed concern that “every school district in America” will be searching for the same supplies, like face masks, personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies, to fight the virus, which he feared could result in shortages.
Once districts find a way to safely get students to school, monitor their health and staff the classrooms, districts can begin to assess how much learning occurred while school buildings were closed, the report said.
NJSBA is part of a newly-created task force led by State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) examining the challenges posed by virtual schooling.
State Task Force
According to Ruiz, they plan to identify whatever academic, emotional and technological supports are needed to “allow all students and families to emerge from this crisis as best they can.”
The task force will then explore ways to allow for a more seamless transition to remote education during future emergencies, such as a possible second wave of coronavirus during the late fall or early winter.
Key recommendations from NJSBA’s report include:
Personal protective equipment: Clear guidelines should establish the level and use of PPE in schools.
Updated financial data: The state must provide local boards of education with updated information on funding for the 2020-21 school year.
Mental health supports: Before schools reopen, districts “should make a sustained effort to establish a sense of calm and trust so that learning, and assessment of learning, can occur.”
Emergency action plan: Before schools reopen, local boards of education should revise closing plans in case school buildings are again shut.
Communication: All stakeholders should be informed about steps to be taken and what the “new normal” will be.
Diagnostic tools: Assessments should be administered to determine each student’s educational progress and to identify the need for remediation.
Remedial programs: The state should identify available funding for districts to address the remedial needs of students.
Flexibility: The New Jersey Department of Education should ensure that districts have the financial and regulatory flexibility they need to respond to the crisis.
Help teacher candidates complete training: The state should develop an appropriate plan to provide an adequate pool of teacher candidates for the upcoming year.
Options for reopening: Options must be developed and offered to districts for what reopening looks like, including looking at plans in other states.