A document on the N.J. Department of Education website, Attestation for School Reopening Plans 2020-2021 School Year, raises liability issues for school districts, according to a review by legal staff of the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. It asks chief school administrators to attest that their districts’ school reopening plans meet certain criteria when, in fact, state and federal guidance and directives have been constantly changing and additional financial support has been lacking.
NJSBA strongly recommends that school district officials discuss the submission of the document with the board attorney.
The lack of clear guidance from the state and federal government has been matched by insufficient funding. As a result, chief school administrators will not be able to attest with certainty that their plans will meet any criteria. The attestation consists of a checklist asking a chief school administrator to simply answer “yes” or “no” to a series of questions. Such limited responses could place school districts in the position of assuming unreasonable liability for students, staff and the community because multiple state and federal directives have changed—and may continue to change—without warning. Moreover, there is no guarantee that districts will receive additional funding to meet the listed requirements, which further exacerbates liability concerns.
For example, question 11 asks superintendents to attest that, to the best of the district’s ability, every child will have access to the internet and 1:1 electronic devices. While this is a laudable goal, the criterion does not take into consideration the cooperation needed from broadband providers or a lack of hardware on the market. Critically, it does not account for the fiscal distress facing many school districts and the fact that they are not in the financial condition to make this guarantee.
The attestation does not protect students and staff, does not support school districts in meeting the goal of opening schools, and does not guarantee districts will receive any additional funding to meet the listed requirements.
NJSBA recommends that, at a minimum, each school district discuss with its board attorney the submission of responses that are more substantial than a simple “yes” or “no” answer and which are tailored to its unique circumstances.
For further information, contact Cynthia Jahn, Esq., NJSBA general counsel, at (609) 278-5250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.