NJSBA hosted a Facebook Live event, “Policy Update,” on March 31. Steve McGettigan, manager, policy, and Jean Harkness, policy consultant, discussed policy topics that have been trending in response to the COVID-19 crisis which has closed schools across the state.
The most frequently asked questions concerned policy covering ways a board can conduct public board meetings virtually and stay in compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act (N.J.S.A. 10:4-6). Guidance issued by the Department of Community Affairs, Division of Local Government Services on March 23, 2020 “…strongly encouraged [boards] to conduct all public meetings subject to the Open Public Meetings Act exclusively using communications equipment (e.g., telephonic conference call-in connections, internet streaming, etc.) for the foreseeable future without providing a physical meeting place.”
Policies that cover some of the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act in the NJSBA Critical Policy Reference Manual (CPRM) include model policies 9321, Time, Place, Notification of Meetings, and 9322, Public and Executive Sessions. Policy language that amends 9322, Public and Executive Session, was developed to assist boards and covers virtual board meetings. It also covers the requirements that the board provide adequate notice of the meeting according to the law and that the public retains the ability to attend and provide comment at the meeting. Instructions should be provided for accessing the meeting and participating in public comment.
Policies directly related to school operations during this unprecedented crisis were discussed. Reviewing existing board policies can provide guidance during this time.
For example, policy 6114, Emergencies and Disaster Preparedness, is important to review because it authorizes the board to direct the chief school administrator to develop and implement a “School Safety and Security Plan,” which sets up comprehensive procedures to follow in the event of all types of crises.
These plans are required pursuant to administrative code, and so is the “Memorandum of Agreement between Education and Law Enforcement Officials,” and they need to be reviewed and updated annually. The memorandum is critical because it includes the preparation for crises, dealing with emergent situations, and recovering afterword. While it is mostly thought of in the event of violent incidents or natural disasters, pandemics such as we are facing now are included as biological crises. The development of these plans requires collaboration with local community agencies and resources, which in the case of pandemics would include the local health department. It is important to review both this policy, and the district’s “School Safety and Security Plan” to be prepared for these events.
Because the “School Safety and Security Plan” is required under the Memorandum of Agreement, boards at this time should also review their policy 1410, dealing with local units. This is the basic policy that directs development of relationships and pooling resources with local law enforcement and community agencies through the memorandum and other means. It is another means to ensure the memorandum is up to date and reviewed annually as required, and relationships have been established with entities that may be of assistance in these crises.
Another example is policy 4119.26/4219.26, Electronic Communication between Staff and Students, which covers appropriate protocols for communication with students through electronic devices. This policy applies and limits communication between staff and students to school business conducted on the school network.
Boards should be conservative in developing policy during evolving situations. Guidance documents issued by the state are not law, and policy content developed using these guidance documents may need to be watched and amended or repealed when the law changes.
Policy consultation is available, and the NJSBA can provide resource information, sample policies and regulations, and answer questions. You may contact a policy consultant at (609) 278-5268 or email Jean Harkness at firstname.lastname@example.org or Steve McGettigan, policy manager at email@example.com.