We’re not ready to reopen schools. Here’s what Murphy can do | Editorial

Posted Jul 26, 2020

The head of the state’s largest teacher’s union is right to fire a warning flare in Trenton: Right now, we’re not close to being ready to reopen schools in New Jersey.

Some districts may be well prepared to offer in-person classes, but plenty of others are not. “It’s just not possible for some districts,” New Jersey Education Association President Marie Blistan says, “and allowances are going to have to be made.”

This is a coming, real dilemma that we haven’t fully faced. If we don’t use the month of August to get ready and offer reassurances, we can’t blame teachers and kids who don’t want to participate. Done wrong, this could be dangerous.

Gov. Phil Murphy announced last week that parents can choose to keep their children out of the classroom, and 42 percent already said they preferred that. Giving them this option was the right thing to do, but schools are in a difficult spot now -- unsure how many students will attend in person, let alone staffers. Teachers are still required to show up, but many may refuse.

A third of the staffers in Camden don’t want to come back in person. And will there be enough substitutes?

Yes, the state is understandably worried about big learning loss if schools were to go all-virtual, particularly for the more than 230,000 students the administration now says don’t have the needed devices or Internet at home. It was good to see Murphy take robust steps to begin closing this digital divide.

But the Legislature is wrestling with how to safely reopen the schools, and the administration is not helping. No one from the Murphy administration showed up at a hearing on Wednesday to discuss it. We face a major challenge, and Murphy should be joining the discussion, rather than pretending he alone has all the answers.

The to-do list is enormous. First, the state must revise its safety guidelines, which aren’t close to adequate right now. Certainly, it makes sense to give schools some flexibility: Some might need one-way traffic in narrow hallways for social distancing, while others need a fleet of extra buses.

But at least six feet of personal space is an absolute must. So is wearing a mask – for everyone, not just teachers, with scheduled breaks if necessary. Yet none of this is currently required by the state. And what if a staff member or student gets diagnosed with COVID – does an entire class have to stay home? What if a family member has it?

These are questions best left to the state Department of Health, not to individual districts. Schools could also use more guidance on what to do about poor ventilation. If the filters aren’t changed regularly enough in a building’s air conditioning system, for instance, it could just be circulating virus.

We need a careful review of the written plans that districts must submit to the state in August and some in-person follow-up to ensure they are followed. And we need a way for districts to share best practices. If some use individual plexiglass partitions around desks, while others don’t, it will make a lot of people very nervous.

If staffers come back only begrudgingly, it won’t create a good culture for kids. We’ll need to continuously assess districts; especially the ability of poor districts to deal with this. All of it is, of course, costly. Paterson stretched and found the funding to buy enough PPE equipment for 3 months. But what then?

There is compelling reason to open the schools, for the kids and the economy. But it can’t come at the expense of fresh flare-ups of the virus. With a little more than a month to go, the state is not nearly ready.

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