With the start of school just days away, districts across the state face a number of challenges heading into the new academic year, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA).
On Aug. 31, the NJSBA released “Choosing the Best Road Back For Our Children,” its second report in a series examining education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The latest report outlines how and where New Jersey’s school districts face challenges and presents findings from surveys of school officials and board members about reopening plans.
Schools Need Aid
NJSBA Executive Director Lawrence Feinsod said the report serves as a call “for critical state and federal support for public education during the pandemic” and pushed for “strong, universal health and safety protocols” from the state.
It follows an initial report in May that gathered information on how districts were responding to the outbreak and recommendations on how to move forward. A third survey on the digital divide will be the focus on NJSBA’s next report, according to Feinsod.
Feinsod praised local school districts for their “committed leadership” and dedication to “designing reopening plans that reflect the best interests of their students’ education and health.” He noted that the process has been “particularly difficult” due to ever-changing, “inconsistent and often, inadequate, state and federal guidance.”
Back To School Plans Vary
For the start of the 2020-21 academic year, the majority of schools are moving forward with a blended model consisting of virtual and in-person instruction.
The New Jersey Department of Education has given the approval to 545 school districts to go ahead with their plan for the 2020/21 school year as of Sept. 2, while 231 are currently under review and 35 plans have not yet been approved. Of the districts that have submitted plans, 434 will use a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning, 242 districts will be all-remote and 68 districts all offer in-person instruction.
NJSBA’s survey found all districts have concerns on funding, the supply chain for personal protective equipment and technology, adequate staffing, “along with shifting state directives and the need for firmer guidance in developing plans.”
Difficulty acquiring personal protective equipment in time for the first day of school was cited by many board members and administrators, the survey found. According to the findings, 52% of superintendents and 37% of business administrators said they were having a hard time.
An elementary school administrator told the NJSBA, “We are all competing for the same resources. It would be helpful if the state and other entities purchased in bulk and then let us purchase from them.”
“A statewide mechanism to facilitate purchasing of medical supplies and technological devices is critical” when it comes to reopening schools, the report said. While several cooperative purchasing programs are available, several districts expressed a need for the state to play a more prominent role in helping them to secure items necessary “to ensure a healthy school environment,” the report said.
Funding to cover pandemic-related expenditures is another challenge, especially with the estimated cost of implementing health and safety protocols hovering around $500 per student, according to the NJSBA.
Under the federal CARES Act, New Jersey schools were given $280 million to prepare for reopening schools, but 61% of business administrators and 63% of superintendents say that funding is not adequate. On Aug. 26, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that an additional $100 million of the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund would be used to help districts meet health standards and other expenses involved in reopening schools.
“It is imperative that the state and federal government provide funding to cover costs associated with the purchase of personal protective equipment, technological devices, transportation and cleaning/disinfecting supplies that were not built into districts’ 2020-2021 budgets,” the report said.
The NJSBA said it will continue to advocate for additional state and federal support to help ensure districts can “deliver education safely and effectively during this public health emergency.”
As the first day of classes approach, staff requests for leaves of absence “have become a factor in the number of districts that planned to begin the academic year with hybrid or full in-person instructional programs,” according to the survey.
Some respondents also indicated a supply of substitute teachers as “a major concern” and said hiring substitutes would be difficult to retain due to the added risks associated with COVID-19.
A North Jersey elementary school administrator said, “We really need guidance from the NJDOE, NJ Department of Health and NJ Department of Labor about how to address employees requesting not to return to in-person teaching. That number is growing exponentially every day. Teachers are providing doctor notes. What do we do if we can’t accommodate everyone?”
Additional Guidance Needed
Surveys found “a high level of concern” about a lack of guidance and direction from the state.
Like school officials, the state Departments of Education and Health, face “the challenge of navigating uncharted waters and have recently responded to the concern of local school districts with firmer guidance, direction and support,” the report said. “Nonetheless, more needs to be done.”
When the NJDOE issued a reopening checklist on Aug. 3 and more extensive health guidelines on Aug. 13, districts “had been involved in developing their plans for well over a month,” the report said.
Some topics districts are looking for more guidance on include: screening, contact tracing, quarantining and shutdowns, according to the NJSBA.
One administrator from an elementary school district told the NJSBA, “The guidance from the state is extremely frustrating and lacks specifics. Providing districts with a template and specific reopening models to choose from would have been more helpful.”