Throughout New Jersey, educators, parents and school boards are wondering just what school will look like in September as the state remains under a public health emergency due to COVID-19.
“Our concern is that we may not be physically in school in September, so we have to prepare for both remote instruction and any retrofits and changes we have to make if we are in school in September,” Superintendent Barry Caldwell told the Atlantic City Board of Education Tuesday night.
On Wednesday, the New Jersey School Boards Association released a report detailing some of the biggest issues that need to be addressed if and when students return to the classroom in the fall, which they say includes staffing, mental health of students and money.
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“The report draws on the viewpoints of New Jersey’s local school officials, research by experts in education, medicine and public health, and the experience of other nations in reopening schools,” said Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director. “It is designed to help school districts further define challenges in these areas and develop strategies to meet them.”
Not long after the state’s first cases of the virus began to emerge in March, schools began developing and implementing remote learning plans to continue with the school year from afar, which they have been doing since mid-March.
In early May, Gov. Phil Murphy announced remote learning would continue until the end of the academic year in June, a move applauded by the state’s education officials, including the NJSBA. Since then, the state Department of Education has begun working on a plan for what education will look like in September. Feinsod said the NJSBA report will help inform that process.
According to the report, while addressing and assessing any learning gaps resulting from home instruction will be important, addressing students’ mental health is paramount.
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The report also calls on the state to tell school districts as soon as possible just how much state aid they would be receiving ahead of the August deadline the state set.
School boards have been feeling the tension of financial uncertainty, especially in their budgeting processes this spring, trying to decide how to spend money next year relying on what will most certainly be outdated state aid figures provided pre-pandemic to districts.
To help, New Jersey was awarded $310 million in emergency funding through the federal CARES Act to deal with the pandemic’s effect on education, 90% of which will go directly to schools for costs associated with remote learning, technology upgrades, purchasing of cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, and related items.
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In its report, the NJSBA also warns that before any plans are developed to bring students back into the classroom, districts must consider staffing, including hiring additional bus drivers, school nurses and teachers (a third of teachers in the nation are over 50, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and considered at higher risk).
The report cites California and Maryland, which have both eased restrictions on new teacher hiring requirements to make sure classrooms are staffed in the fall.
Other recommendations include engaging in early and sustained communication with parents, students and staff; revised emergency plans if online instruction must resume; a variety of strategic options for schools in reopening; policy on the use of PPE; modification of the state’s school district evaluation system so districts are not penalized for actions necessary to address the pandemic; administration of tests to identify the need for remediation, and adequate funding to provide such programs.
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The NJSBA’s report comes a few days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its reopening guidelines for schools, which include suggestions such as staggering arrival times, spacing desks 6 feet apart and facing in the same direction, reducing class size and closing communal spaces like lunchrooms and playgrounds.
So what might school look like? Many of the school board members and administrators who responded to the NJSBA survey were uncertain about what the future holds and what would be required of their district.
“It depends upon the criteria set out by Gov. Murphy. I feel my district is prepared and able to physically open the building and address sanitation needs, but I am unsure about virus testing measures and the ability to implement perhaps a split day to reduce the number of students in the building at one time,” reads a response from an unnamed Atlantic County school official, which the NJSBA said was similar to that of many other respondents.
A survey of 1,000 school board members and administrators revealed that 29% of districts are considering alternate in-person and remote instructional periods, while 24% are considering split sessions. Another 21% are considering the use of non-classroom areas for instruction to accommodate social distancing, and 21% are looking at a flipped classroom model where lectures occur online at home and learning activities happen in person. Finally, just 5% are considering a six-day school week.