Too many rules? Or not enough? N.J. plan to reopen schools has district leaders scrambling.

Posted Jun 26, 2020

Closing New Jersey’s 2,500 public schools was relatively simple.

An executive order issued by Gov. Phil Murphy in March contained a single paragraph saying all of the state’s schools would be closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Reopening those schools is proving to be more complicated.

State education officials released a 104-page plan Friday, titled “The Road Back,” with dozens of rules and recommendations for schools to reopen for the new school year as the state continues to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The guidelines, which include rules about teachers wearing masks and guidance on students sitting six feet apart in classrooms, are designed to help New Jersey’s 577 public school districts craft their own plans for reopening schools.

Some school officials said it was a relief to finally get the long-awaited state guidance on their next steps. Others said the guidelines were either too vague or too constricting for a state with a mix of small, large, urban and suburban schools with vastly different needs and populations.

Mount Olive Superintendent Robert Zywicki, who spoke at Murphy’s press conference unveiling the plan, said he appreciated the flexibility in the state’s guidelines. Many of the details, including asking students to wear masks all day, are recommendations, not strict regulations.

Unlike the Murphy administration’s rules for reopening restaurants and stores, there are also no limits on how many people can be in a school building at once.

“The flexibility is the most important thing,” said Zywicki, whose suburban Morris County district had already come up with four possible reopening scenarios while awaiting the state report.

Mount Olive’s options include a split schedule plan that limits the number of students in school buildings with separate morning and afternoon sessions or alternating day schedules.

“The No. 1 thing superintendents wanted to hear is whether we were coming back or not. So, we now have that answer,” he said.

New Jersey schools shut their doors and switched students to remote learning in March, unsure when they would be able to reopen. Until the release of the new guidelines Friday, it was unclear if districts would have the option of remaining closed for all or part of the 2020-2021 school year.

But the education department’s report said all New Jersey districts must reopen in some form for in-person learning in the fall. Schools will have the choice to reopen with social distancing measures for full days or craft another plan — including instituting staggered schedules or “hybrid” school days that combine going to school and learning remotely at home.

There are other big questions too, including how to arrange bus schedules so students can get to school without having to sit directly next to each other. Some sprawling districts with large bus fleets and complex busing routes said the state’s social distancing recommendation for buses are unrealistic.

Districts don’t have long to decide on their plans. They need to inform families of their reopening details at least four weeks before school is scheduled to begin in late August or early September.

Glenn Robbins, superintendent of the Brigantine public schools in Atlantic County, sent a message to the families in his district asking for patience as district officials sort through the state guidelines.

“As you already know, we do not have all of the answers at this time, since the document was released to the public today. Our district administrative team has been working on just about every situational plan imaginable up to this date, and conversing with local, regional and national leaders,” Robbins said.

He also asked parents to be conscious of how they react to the state’s reopening plan in front of their children.

“As a parent myself, I know that our children are watching our reactions and will respond accordingly,” Robbins said.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the state’s guidelines for districts was helpful in some spots, but too vague in others.

“In some cases, the guidance may need to be more specific and less permissive to ensure that the highest standards are upheld everywhere,” the union said in a statement.

NJEA officials, who released their own report on schools reopening earlier this month stressing the need to keep teachers and students safe, said they are concerned the Murphy administration’s reopening guidance doesn’t give enough consideration to teachers and others who could be at serious risk if they return to school.

“We must also acknowledge that the measures outlined today may not be adequate for every individual, particularly those whose health or other conditions require them to take greater precautions to avoid exposing themselves or others to COVID-19,” the NJEA’s statement said.

State officials said students who want to continue remote learning because they feel unsafe returning to school should not be penalized by their districts. However, the state guidelines do not address what schools should do if teachers don’t want to wear masks or refuse to return to their classrooms.

In Manville, Superintendent Robert Beers said his small Somerset County district was already planning for a split A/B schedule with different groups of students coming in on different days or weeks. But he had some concerns about the state’s guidelines, including the section that said schools will have a role in contract tracing if someone gets sick.

Manville is planning to hire extra nurses and security personnel on a per diem basis to monitor students’ temperatures. The state guidelines did not offer many details on how districts and local health officials should test for coronavirus or the protocols for tracing which students and staff were exposed to the virus, he said.

“I’m a superintendent of schools. I was a history teacher, not a public health expert. I’m not trying to be smug — but there are people far more qualified than I am to set up guidelines that I would willingly follow. But I think it’s tough when it’s kicked down to the local level,” Beers said.

In Hopewell in Mercer County, superintendent Tom Smith said he would have preferred more specific rules from the state on multiple parts of the plan.

“It offers flexibility but offers room for a lot of confusion and misinterpretation. The intent is to give districts flexibility and I get that … but I would much rather have preferred more concrete guidance,” Smith said.

The busing recommendations alone would mean 60 extra bus runs a day for Hopewell, a relatively small district, the superintendent says. The district is also considering a split schedule with half of the students going to school on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and the rest going Tuesday and Thursday -- then flipping the schedule the following week.

But, the state’s open-ended guidance allows for neighboring towns to set up their school year with vastly different policies, creating confusion for parents, teachers and staff, he said.

“Right now, we’re flying in the dark. I hoped for more specifics, like what do you do with students who choose not to come to school? Even for staff members, how do you work it out with staff members who have to quarantine for 14 days? Is that going to be sick days?” Smith said.

Newark, the state’s largest school district, has even more complex logistical concerns along with big questions about whether students have the technology and internet access they need at home to keep up with their schooling if they are not spending full days in the classroom.

“In a city like Newark where we have 55,000 kids who attend district and charter schools, we have to be thinking at the household level. Each household has to have the capacity to support the members in that household through a connected manner through technology. One device oftentimes is not enough,” said Ronald Chaluisán, the executive director of the Newark Trust for Education, a non-profit group focused on the city’s schools.

The state’s guidelines did not indicate if the Department of Education will be making changes to requirements for attendance, the number of days in the school year or other measures they use to keep schools accountable, Chaluisán said. The report also didn’t specify how school districts will know if they have developed a good reopening plan for students.

“We could talk about reopening, flexibility, local decision-making, but one of those guideposts needs to be -- ‘We will be successful if…' And since the state holds that definition, it’s important they make that explicit,” he said.

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment