The NJSBA testified Feb. 9 on how New Jersey can successfully reopen schools while addressing learning loss and the social emotional impact the pandemic has had on the students and teachers of New Jersey.

During a virtual meeting before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools, NJSBA Director of Governmental Affairs Jonathan Pushman highlighted some of the work the NJSBA has done over the past year, providing guidance and resources on the state of education during the pandemic, and what will need to be done to return to “a new normal for public education in New Jersey.”

The NJSBA was one of a group of leading education advocacy groups invited to testify by the committee chairs, Sen. Ronald Rice and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey.

Pushman told the committee the NJSBA has issued a series of four special reports since the pandemic claimed its first life in New Jersey on March 10, 2020:

  1. Searching for a ‘New Normal’ in New Jersey’s Public Schools: How the Coronavirus Is Changing Education in the Garden State (May 2020) addresses the safe reopening of schools, students’ mental health, academic and extracurricular programs, budgetary issues, and preparations for the future.
  2. Choosing the Best ‘Road Back’ for Our Children (August 2020) provides an advocacy agenda for public education during the pandemic, including state and federal funding, assistance in securing personal protective equipment and technology, financial flexibility, and critical changes in law and regulation.
  3. Reopening Schools: Online Learning and the Digital Divide (October 2020) looks at the challenges facing school districts in delivering instruction remotely to all students during the pandemic and beyond.
  4. Eye on the Future as Districts Monitor Student Mental Health (January 2021) shows how mental health programs are helping students withstand the pandemic.

“We believe each of these reports can serve as a vital resource to not only school board members, but to the broader educational community, as well as key policymakers,” Pushman said, “as we chart a path forward for our students.”

Excerpts from Pushman’s prepared testimony follow:

Safely Reopening of Schools Board of education members are eager to reopen their respective district facilities and return students to in-person instruction as soon as possible. Obviously, doing so safely and without risking the health of students or staff is of paramount importance. Once we are able to get more teachers and staff vaccinated, we can then return to in-person learning and districts will be able to focus their time, energy and resources on the issues that are the focus of today’s hearing – addressing learning loss and the social-emotional impact of the pandemic on students.

Currently, it is unclear when enough people will be vaccinated to make a return to some semblance of normalcy possible. And unfortunately, the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has been disappointingly slow. Additionally, teachers and other school personnel have not been given the level of prioritization to receive the vaccine, which is essential to reopening schools to more in-person instruction. At the request of several of our members, the N.J. School Boards Association drafted a sample resolution urging the governor to give appropriate priority in the statewide administration of the COVID-19 vaccine to all public school district personnel. Many have or plan to adopt this resolution.

No conversation surrounding the reopening of schools can occur without emphasizing what all school districts can use more of: financial resources. Districts have and will continue to incur expenses that they never could have planned or budgeted for when COVID-19 took hold of the world last March. Even before the pandemic, the state had failed to meet its existing obligations under the school funding formula. While we appreciate that the Legislature and Gov. Murphy have made a concerted effort in recent years to increase overall education funding, we believe more needs to be done. Flat funding will not be sufficient for another year. It is critically important that the state prioritize increased funding for schools in the next state budget so they have the financial resources to confront the learning and social-emotional needs of students.

Social-Emotional Needs and Mental Health While the social-emotional needs and mental health of our students were serious concerns before the pandemic, they have garnered increased attention during this extended period of social isolation. Fortunately, as illustrated in the NJSBA’s fourth report on the impact of the pandemic, a compilation of national and state data, anecdotal information from superintendents, and an NJSBA survey all show that, for the most part, the worst has not occurred.

Although student suicides and incidents of self-harm remain at disturbingly high levels, the coronavirus pandemic has apparently not created a new wave of incidents. A NJSBA survey of board members, superintendents and staff conducted this past fall showed that nearly half of the respondents said, “We do not see evidence of more students in crisis, but in general students are more anxious and depressed.” In addition, nearly one-third responded, “In general, students are coping well. Our district has not seen increased evidence of serious crises.”

This should not be interpreted to mean that the pandemic has not had any impact on the mental health of students. One national survey to assess the mental health impact on school-age children revealed that, since their school buildings closed, young people’s levels of concern about the present and future have increased, and indicators of overall health and well-being have suffered. More than one-quarter of students say they do not feel connected at all to school adults. A similar percentage do not feel connected to classmates or to their school community.

While more details can be found in the NJSBA’s latest report, a summary of a few of our key proposals on how we can address students’ mental health and social-emotional needs follows below:

  • More state and federal aid is needed. As mentioned above, the most recent COVID relief package represents a welcome first step, but the NJSBA remains convinced that more assistance will be necessary to help districts effectively address the enormous and ongoing challenges caused by the pandemic.
  • Postpone high-stakes federally required assessments. Such tests can be stressful for students, and administering them in this educational environment could also create a significant drain on resources better spent on providing mental health services for students and maintaining a high-quality education program.
  • Approve a pending five-bill package to assist students with their mental health needs. This package, sponsored Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, contains a variety of proposals intended to enhance mental health services and resources available to New Jersey’s public school students.
  • Strengthen and preserve the School-Based Youth Service Program (SBYSP). Threatened with elimination in FY2021 state budget, but fortunately preserved by the Legislature, the SBYSP provides critical services, including mental health counseling and suicide prevention, in a school setting. With a proven track record of success, it must be maintained.
  • Develop a long-term recovery plan. In conjunction with the state’s major education groups and a diverse array of district representatives from around the state, the NJDOE should consider developing short- and long-term plans to help students recover from any delay in learning progression caused by the disruptive events of the past year.

Student Learning Loss. The NJSBA believes strongly in the importance of assessing and remediating any learning loss, gaps or delays resulting from the pandemic. In the reports since the public emergency began, the NJSBA issued various recommendations centered around this critical issue:

  • Develop a statewide report on what students learned during the shutdown and a strategic plan to address learning loss. Working with local districts, the New Jersey Department of Education should assess the level of student learning during the shutdown. Aggregated data should be collected to provide a clear statewide picture of what happened during that period. This would be an important step toward developing a funded strategic plan to help address remediation. When the pandemic is under control, we must assess any delay in student learning progression. In that regard, the NJSBA has lent support to pending legislation, S-3214/A-5126, spearheaded by Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa Ruiz, which would require the New Jersey Commissioner of Education to prepare two reports on how the coronavirus has affected student achievement. However, the NJSBA also recognizes the strain that the current emergency has placed on staff and resources. Along with other education organizations, the Association believes the timing for developing the reports required under this measure is critical, and has cautioned against the imposition of any additional, potentially burdensome responsibilities on staff that would take away from districts’ top priority — advancing student learning and achievement while protecting the health and safety of students and staff.
  • Develop a statewide report on the delivery of special education services. What was the experience of New Jersey’s 246,693 special education students during the shutdown? What has happened as many schools have moved to virtual learning? How can we address the delay in learning progression for special education students? The NJSBA applauds the extraordinary efforts of special education service providers operating under the most difficult conditions, but once the pandemic ebbs, this is an area that needs to be studied and addressed.
  • Identify the components of high-quality of online instruction and develop a program to sustain and improve it. Online instruction—whether it is a 100% virtual program or a hybrid of virtual and in-person teaching—is likely to be with the state’s schools for months to come. Teachers need continuing professional development to effectively teach classes online. As the pandemic subsides, rather than returning to business as usual, how can we help districts incorporate digital discoveries into the curriculum and provide resources to assess and improve the quality of online instruction? Through necessity, many districts made great strides in providing online education. How can those innovations be maintained and enhanced?

We should also give consideration to how we might leverage virtual learning going forward to increase and add flexibility to the school day. Before-school, after-school and weekend programs have now become much more feasible after having nearly a year of experience with remote instruction, and the impediments to implementing these programs, such as insufficient technology and transportation challenges, have now become more manageable.