New Jersey Gives Schools an All-Remote Option

By 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Aug. 12, 2020

The New Jersey Education Association had criticized the lack of uniform school safety guidelines and had called for all-remote instruction to protect its members and students from the risk of contracting the coronavirus.Credit...

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Gov. Philip D. Murphy is giving New Jersey districts the option to offer all-virtual classes when school resumes next month, relaxing his original requirement that teachers provide some in-person classroom instruction.

The policy shift comes as the state’s powerful teachers union for the first time publicly called for an all-virtual start to the school year given the risks still posed by the coronavirus.

It also follows decisions by two of New Jersey’s largest urban districts, Jersey City and Elizabeth, to offer only virtual instruction — plans that were in direct conflict with the governor’s original position and would have required approval from the state.

To be eligible to start the year with all-remote instruction, a district must be able to document why it cannot safely provide in-person instruction and set a date for a return to school, Mr. Murphy said.

“Districts that cannot meet all the health and safety standards for safe in-person instruction will begin their school year in an all-remote fashion,” the governor said. “Public school districts will need to spell out their plans for satisfying these unmet standards and a date by which they anticipate the ability to resume in-person instruction.”

The teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, a close ally of Mr. Murphy, had raised concerns about the safety of holding in-person classes, but had stopped short of publicly calling for all-virtual instruction.

But late Tuesday, in a joint statement with groups representing principals and administrators, the union criticized the state’s lack of uniform school safety guidelines and called for all-remote instruction to protect its members and students from the risk of contracting the virus.

“Our state, while doing better than many others, has not yet stopped the spread of this virus, particularly among the same young people who are scheduled to return to school in under four weeks,” the education leaders wrote.

Marie Blistan, president of the 200,000-member teachers union, said that the concern about the inability to safely return to in-person instruction was coming from a wide spectrum of employees, including principals and superintendents, who provide guidance to elected school boards.

While state officials stressed that the goal was for a majority of schools to offer in-person instruction, Ms. Blistan said she believed the policy shift would lead most districts to opt for all-remote instruction.

“I believe that that is going to happen, one way or another,” Ms. Blistan said. “And I want it to happen before anyone else gets sick.”

The virus has taken a tremendous toll in New Jersey, one of the states hit first and hardest by the pandemic. At least 187,328 people have tested positive for the virus, and there have been 15,890 deaths linked to Covid-19.

But a strict, monthslong regional lockdown has led to a rate of infection that is now among the nation’s lowest.

Still, over the last week, the boards of education in Jersey City and Elizabeth each voted to start school with only virtual instruction. The densely populated city of Bayonne, in Hudson County, and Willingboro, a Burlington County township near the state’s western border with Pennsylvania, also submitted plans that called for all-virtual instruction.

The mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka, another close ally of the governor, had publicly urged parents not to send their children to school, citing the increased risk of spreading the virus in a city that has had at least 652 deaths from Covid-19.

“At this rate that we’re going,” Mr. Baraka, a former high school principal, said on Aug. 3, “I would advise everybody to keep their children home from school.”

He repeated the sentiment five times.

In late June, Mr. Murphy released a 104-page plan that required schools to offer some form of in-person instruction. Weeks later, he said that parents could choose to not send their children to school, and that districts must offer those students all-virtual classes.

When virus cases began to increase in New Jersey after falling to their lowest points in mid-July, Mr. Murphy announced that children would need to wear masks throughout the school day.

On Monday night, the board of education in Elizabeth, the state’s fourth-largest city with 28,300 students, said it had no choice but to offer only virtual instruction because it did not have enough teachers to staff its classrooms.

As of Tuesday afternoon, a spokesman said that 402 Elizabeth teachers — one in five instructional staff members — had provided doctors’ notes and documentation asserting that they could not teach in person based on their own underlying health conditions or those of someone they lived with.

The lack of sufficient staff members meant that in-person instruction was “no longer a practical reality,” said Pat Politano, a spokesman for the Elizabeth schools.

The moves by officials in urban districts had presented a challenge for a governor who had in part framed the argument about the need for some in-person learning as an issue of equity for students who rely on school for access to computers and basic nutrition.

New Jersey is home to some of the top-rated schools in the nation. But it is equally well known for the economic gaps that exist between its working-class and poor cities and its more affluent suburbs, where parents may be better able to cope with the expense and rigor of remote learning.

New York City is the only large district in the country that has said it intended to offer in-person instruction — with children reporting to classrooms one to three times a week — provided the rate of new positive tests remains under 3 percent.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, when asked on Wednesday if New York was concerned about teacher shortages similar to those the Elizabeth schools were facing, said the district was reviewing requests from about 15 percent of its teachers for health-related accommodations.

“We’re going to have the resources to serve our kids,” Mr. de Blasio said.

Across the Hudson River, in Jersey City, the school board voted last week to offer only virtual instruction. The mayor, Steven M. Fulop, cited the state’s lack of access to speedy coronavirus test results, the absence of a robust contact-tracing network and shortages of cleaning supplies as reasons for the decision.

“There’s limited resources around testing,” Mr. Fulop said in an interview on Tuesday. “There’s slow response time, and there continues to be a lack of resources around cleaning supplies and sanitation.”

It was unclear how many of New Jersey’s 584 school districts might attempt to shift to all-virtual instruction. All districts now have the option of resubmitting reopening plans based on the new guidance.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that students be “physically present in school” as much as possible, and has emphasized that there are health, social and educational risks to keeping children at home.

In many New Jersey towns, a majority of parents had said in planning surveys that they intended to send their children to school in person.

Many districts were preparing for a hybrid model of instruction that alternated between coming to school in person and tuning in remotely to teachers’ lessons from devices at home. The rotation would enable districts to maintain the required six-foot distance between occupants of the building.

But in a survey conducted by Elizabeth, 52 percent of parents still said they would not send their children to in-person classes, Mr. Politano said.

The debate among parents had become more intense as the first day of school grew nearer and the state’s rate of coronavirus infection increased slightly before dropping again.

Mr. Murphy had in part blamed the spike in cases on indoor house parties among young people; in response, he reduced the number of people permitted to gather indoors from 100 to 25.

It was a policy shift broadly noted by educators, who began to publicly question how they could be expected to keep children and staff members safe indoors, often in aging school buildings that may lack proper ventilation. About 2,500 of the state’s public school buildings were built more than 50 years ago, Ms. Blistan said.

“We’re not saying we shouldn’t open schools,” Patricia Wright, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said on Tuesday in an interview. “We strongly believe students should be in school. What I think we need is more time.”

In its statement, the N.J.E.A., together with the New Jersey Association of School Administrators and the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, predicted that the absence of a uniform guidance from Mr. Murphy would lead to a chaotic decision-making process.

“The question of whether and when to reopen for in-person instruction is first and foremost a public health decision that cannot be left in the hands of nearly 600 individual school districts,” the statement read.

“The stakes are too high, and the consequences of a wrong decision are too grave.”

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