On Wednesday, July 8, the leaders of the New Jersey county school boards associations met virtually with Interim Commissioner of Education Kevin Dehmer and staff members from the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) for an hour-long question and answer session. The discussion centered on reopening New Jersey’s schools, and the report issued by the department, “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for New Jersey.”
“We appreciate the Department of Education’s outreach to NJSBA to hear the concerns of school board leaders from a diverse group of districts,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director. “Our conversation was valuable and alerted the department to many of the questions facing local school boards as they develop plans to reopen schools.”
Dehmer stressed that the meeting involved a two-way discussion.
“When this (the plan) was created, the idea was to compile the best information available, but as we all know, this is an evolving situation and we are learning more and more about this every day,” he said. “The idea is to make this something of a living document, and we plan to do updates. There are going to be questions that we don’t have a concrete answer for yet, but the questions give us direction on where additional guidance can be directed.”
Local Health Officials Important In answer to a question from Sheli Dansky, a member of the River Edge board and an NJSBA Board of Directors delegate representing Bergen County, about what protocols should be followed if a student, staff member or family member tests positive for COVID-19, Dehmer stressed the role that local health departments must play.
“A big part of our expectation is that the districts and the restart committees will work with local health officials to determine a plan,” he said. “It is important to use their expertise, and they can help guide you as you come up with your plan and consider board policies. They can provide the public health perspective.”
Other specific health decisions, including whether to mandate masks where not contraindicated for specific students, and how to do health screenings, including temperature checks, are also the province of boards of education.
“An important aspect is that each school building looks different, so screening will be different,” said Dehmer. The commissioner did indicate that districts did not need a certified nurse to do temperature checks.
Staff Not Returning to School Jim Gaffney, president of the Bergen County School Boards Association, asked about a district’s responsibility to accommodate a teacher or aide who has medical documentation that they are at risk. “Does the district have to allow the teacher to stay at home and pay a substitute?” he asked. Dehmer and Caitlin Pletcher, NJDOE legal specialist, noted that the matter is a district personnel decision, subject to the local contract, and existing policies and laws, such as the ADA and HIPAA, and urged consultation with the board attorney.
Students Not Returning? Dana Krug of the West Windsor-Plainsboro school board, and an NJSBA Board of Directors delegate for Mercer County, asked whether districts could offer all-digital options to families, or whether those students would have to withdraw and be considered home-schooled. “We are actively looking into this in more detail,” said Dehmer. “So I would say, ‘Hold tight’; we will get something to you soon.’”
Further guidance has already arrived that addresses the topic of state aid. Lynn Anderson, president of the Union County School Boards Association, and a member of the Plainfield board, described a situation where the local districts were notified that the additional state aid proposed back in February had been cut back, but local charters did not receive notice that their aid was going to be cut. Therefore, business administrators had to begin paying the larger amount to local charters beginning July 1. The interim commissioner indicated that more detailed state aid notices, reflecting the state aid adjustments, would soon be released. On July 10, the department released the notices, which can be found here.
The NJDOE officials also indicated that further guidance would be coming in the area of crisis drills and lockdowns, exercises impacted by the need to maintain proper social distancing.
The county school boards association leaders took the opportunity to inquire about other matters related to school reopening, including transportation, the permissible length of school days, and the use of capital reserve funds.