The New Jersey School Boards Association today commended the work of local school boards under the leadership of superintendents in developing reopening plans to meet the needs of their students. The Association also called for statutory and regulatory changes to strengthen the ability of districts to provide education during the pandemic.

“In late June, New Jersey’s school districts were presented with a daunting prospect: Identify the right balance of in-person instruction and virtual learning for 2020-2021, while implementing appropriate safeguards for the health of students, staff and families,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director.

“Under the committed leadership of district superintendents, school communities have been performing exemplary work in designing reopening plans that reflect the best interests of their students’ education and health.”

Feinsod noted that the process has been particularly challenging due to ever-changing, and sometimes, inconsistent guidance.

“NJSBA has strived to impress on the Department of Education and the Governor’s Office the need for stronger direction, particularly in the area of health and safety protocols,” he said. Last week, the Department of Health released expanded guidance with more in-depth recommendations.

The Right Decision for Students “NJSBA unequivocally supports the ability and authority of local boards of education, working with their superintendents, to make decisions on reopening school—with or without in-person instruction,” said Feinsod.

“Our members have expressed very strong opinions on this matter, some in favor of reopening school with in-person instruction and others supporting a start of the academic year exclusively on a virtual basis,” he continued.

“Many school board members support students receiving in-person instruction with appropriate health and safety precautions in place, and they believe that their districts are in a position to do so,” Feinsod explained. “At the same time, many other board members have said that it is in the best interest of students for schools to reopen on an all-virtual basis.

“Even with these differing viewpoints, local school board members are united in their desire to make the right decision for children under these extraordinary circumstances,” he continued. “School reopening plans are designed to reflect what each board and superintendent determines is best for their students and staff.”

Feinsod also pointed to the parameters set by the governor’s Executive Order 175, issued August 13.

A district’s decision on reopening must be based on its ability to meet the health standards, which reflect  recommended protocols released by the state Department of Health.

If a district can meet the health standards, its plan must include in-person instruction. If it cannot meet the criteria by the first day of school, it can reopen on a full virtual basis, but its plan must indicate when the standards will be met and when in-person instruction will be reestablished.

“Either way, the best decisions are always made by those closest to kids,” said Feinsod.

Pandemic Advocacy Agenda An upcoming NJSBA report about districts’ experience during the pandemic—the second in a series—will address the strategies that are part of school reopening plans and the challenges involved in restarting the education process. These challenges underscore the need for legislative and regulatory change to enable local school boards to provide an effective education program in 2020-2021.

Therefore, the report will focus on changes in statute, regulation and process that would facilitate the reopening and operation of school districts during the pandemic.

  • Financial Flexibility –NJSBA supports legislation to ease restrictions on the transfer of funds, the amount of surplus, the use of capital reserve and emergency reserve accounts, and other business functions. In addition, suspending provisions of the Accountability Regulations, N.J.A.C. 6A:23A, such as meeting certain staffing ratios as a condition for receipt of state aid, would provide needed flexibility.
  • Financial Support—The Association supports additional state and federal funding to cover costs associated with the purchase of personal protective equipment, technological devices, and cleaning/disinfecting supplies that were not built into districts’ 2020-2021 budgets. (In a recent survey, approximately 62% of the superintendents and school business administrators indicated that federal CARES Act funding was not sufficient to cover their districts’ needs in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
  • Assistance in Securing PPE and Technology—NJSBA believes that a statewide mechanism to facilitate school district purchasing of medical supplies and technological devices is critical to restarting the education process in 2020-2021.
  • Payment for Services Rendered – The Association advocates full state funding for—or relief from—recent legislation, A-3904 (P.L. 2020, c.27), which requires that school employees and contracted service providers, such as transportation companies, be paid when services are not rendered during a school closure.
  • Liability Protection—NJSBA believes that boards of education need safeguards, in addition to those currently provided through the Tort Claims Liability Act. These protections would apply to situations in which the school district could potentially face liability issues while adhering to state-recommended health and safety precautions.

“Local school board members are united in their desire to make the right decision for children under the extraordinary circumstances we face today,” Feinsod concluded. “Based on their commitment to the well-being of New Jersey’s 1.4 million public school students, we know that they will succeed.”