Pandemic education: The only certainty is uncertainty

JOHN MOONEY, EDUCATION WRITER | JANUARY 5, 2022 

NJ Spotlight News

A second-grader masked against the coronavirus and separated from other students in the classroom

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A year ago in January 2021, when New Jersey schools were coming off a surge in the COVID-19 pandemic, questions arose about what lessons we would learn from the previous year’s unprecedented upheaval in education.

Would remote and the then-novel “hybrid model” of schooling permanently change how students are taught — for good or not so good? Would the existing gaps in learning and technology be addressed — or only widen? Would we reimagine education, as some espoused?

At the start of a new year, with the pandemic persisting and maybe worsening, it’s hard to give simple answers to what proved to be very complex questions. In some cases, the answers are still to be determined.

But a few things are clear: the early promises of remote learning and the possibility of a new age in schooling have yet to be realized. Meanwhile, the costs both for instruction and in mental health are real — and likely to define the year ahead, if not beyond.

The Murphy administration is expected on Wednesday to belatedly release new state assessment data for the 2020–2021 school year, but whatever the numbers, few educators or families would argue that last year went well. A year later, the notion of avoiding remote learning has been far more mantra than reality.

Take the superintendent of one Morris County district, who this week sent out a letter to his families explaining his decision to keep schools open at the start of the year, even as the coronavirus cases rise for students and staff, with their ensuing quarantines.

“Students might not have access to all their teachers at the present time, they might not get to participate in every single activity the way they want, they might have to continue to wear a mask, and they might not be sealed off from all exposure to Covid,” wrote superintendent Michael LaSusa of the School District of the Chathams.

“But it is better that they are able to come to school — interacting with one another and their teachers — than have to stay at home for all or even part of the day,” he wrote.

Gov. Phil Murphy said as much this week, declaring that a mandate for remote schooling as he imposed at the start of the pandemic is not an option this time, even as a third of schools are taking it upon themselves to do just that to ride out the latest surge.

“We currently have no intention or plan to shut our schools,” Murphy said. “We have no desire to return to remote learning, which is suboptimal as we all know in terms of learning, instruction and learning loss.”

But he also acknowledged another question that has arisen in this pandemic and surely will dominate the debate for weeks, if not months, to come: Who gets to decide?

The Murphy administration last year faced widespread criticism for not providing enough guidance for schools in many instances, yet too much in others. School leaders pressed for consistency from the state in determining whether to stay open or not, a complaint many of them still harbor. Yet many parents also filled school board meetings to protest any mandates at all, especially about masking.

“Certainly, individual schools and districts may make their own decisions after consulting their own local health departments, and some are starting the second half of the school year in remote fashion,” Murphy said Monday. “But we will do everything we can to keep our kids in schools where not only we know they will have a more appropriate educational experience, but where the data actually shows they can be kept in an overall reality safe.”

At the same time, Murphy announced he would seek to extend his mandates for face masks in school, which were set to expire next week. And that news was quickly endorsed by the state’s major education groups, including the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers union.

In a letter to the governor and Legislature on Tuesday, the groups urged them to “continue to address this issue with a statewide approach for all New Jersey school districts, rather than leaving masking policies to 600 diverse school districts. While local control has many benefits in our state, the negative energy, divisiveness and distraction caused by this issue should not be underestimated.”

In a move that could very well determine how the rest of the school year proceeds, Murphy also this week opened the way for a “test-to-stay” protocol that would allow asymptomatic students to stay in school as long as they continue to test negative.

In a rare step, the state Department of Health released that guidance over the weekend, outlining a complex array of rules addressing who could and couldn’t follow the protocols.

“Students participating in ‘test to stay’ are required to comply with enhanced testing and masking recommendations and should quarantine when not in school,” commented state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “If schools are considering implementing test-to-stay policies, they should have robust contact tracing in place and access to testing resources.”

Again, though, she said it would be up to local districts to decide, her point about testing resources may be the hitch for some. For example, Mount Olive schools have about a fifth of students and staff out with positive tests or on quarantine at the start of the year.

Superintendent Robert Zywicki said he’s long preached “test-to-stay” as a key step to get both back in the buildings. “But we don’t have the testing kits,” he said Tuesday. “There is no supply.”

When asked what is different this year compared with last year at this time, Zywicki didn’t hesitate in pointing to the mental strain on both students and teachers. “The stress level is higher,” he said. “It’s off the charts.”

LaSusa, the Chathams’ superintendent, said in his community letter that’s just the reason he’ll do whatever it takes to keep schools open. He told the story of touring the high school on Monday and just before the break and hearing directly from students.

“Multiple students, unprompted and in the hallways, have thanked me for keeping schools open,” the superintendent wrote. “Putting aside that usually most students don’t even know who I am, I never thought I would see the day when high schoolers — who usually are begging me to close school due to the snow, the heat, flooding, Halloween, the day after the Superbowl, etc. — would thank me for keeping schools open in the middle of the winter.

“The world is indeed upside down!”

 

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of year-end stories looking at key issues facing New Jersey in 2021 and 2022. This entry focuses on the state’s public schools and how they have coped during the COVID-19 pandemic and what lies ahead.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-01-05 03:15:59 -0800