On July 22, the Assembly Education Committee approved A-4378, which establishes the position of State School Nurse Consultant within the NJDOE. The bill was sponsored by Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak, and Assemblywomen Mila Jasey and Pamela Lampitt.

The consultant would work in collaboration with the New Jersey Department of Health and with other state agencies and stakeholders, serve as a liaison and resource expert on school nursing, and facilitate the development of comprehensive school health policies, among other duties.

The consultant, who would be appointed by the commissioner of education, would be a certified school nurse with a master’s degree who has demonstrated higher-level leadership experience.

The bill will come before the full Assembly for a vote on July 30. NJSBA supports the legislation.

Depression Screenings  On July 27, A-970, which would require public schools to administer written screenings for depression in students in grades 7 through 12, was approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. It is now scheduled for a vote in the full Assembly on Thursday, July 30.  NJSBA supports the bill.

The bill, which passed the Assembly Health Committee on June 23, represents an effort to address an alarming rise of teen depression and suicides, especially during a time when the country is facing more mental health issues than ever before due to COVID-19.

The Appropriations Committee’s concern was based on the fiscal impact of the legislation.  The cost of common depression screening assessments for adolescents ranges from free to approximately $2.50 per student. One electronic screening tool is to be selected to be utilized by all school districts. The NJDOE calculated an enrollment of approximately 599,000 students in grades 7-12 for the 2018-2019 school year.  Depending on the test selected, the cost could range from the nominal cost of materials to approximately $1.5 million.

NJSBA Testifies on School Reopening Discussion On July 22, the Assembly Education Committee held a long discussion concerning the New Jersey Department of Education’s (NJDOE) report, “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education.”

Various representatives of education stakeholder groups participated, including Michael Vrancik, NJSBA’s director of governmental relations.

Vrancik testified that, as districts develop reopening plans, there is a need for universal health and safety guidelines from the state Department of Health. Boards of education are concerned about addressing situations in which a student or staff member becomes ill, as well as liability if there was not consistent and sufficient guidance from local health officials. In addition, he mentioned concerns with the current supply chain issues for personal protective equipment and technology.

NJSBA has conveyed the sentiment of the majority of its membership, which is that schools should open in September, with clearly defined protocols to ensure the health and safety of students and staff.

Several participants, including legislators, questioned the likelihood schools will be able to open at all in the fall, citing the upcoming flu season while the nation is simultaneously dealing with the COVID pandemic. And as the conversation progressed, it became clear there were multiple questions on what education should look like in the fall. The only consensus that seemed to emerge was that all education leaders are trying to do the best they can under enormously difficult circumstances.

Among the concerns and unanswered questions raised during the meeting were:

  • The lag time between testing and receiving results from COVID testing;
  • The need for an affirmative threshold of COVID cases, preferably developed by the New Jersey Department of Health, where schools should be shut down;
  • The general lack of statewide leadership on health issues as they pertain to schools;
  • The lack of school nurses and the potential need to relax pension rules to coax retired nurses out of retirement;
  • The NJDOE report encourages school districts to be in touch with local health officials to be aware of potential COVID outbreaks; however, the staff in those offices will not necessarily be from a school district’s community;
  • What, if anything, can be done for working parents if a hybrid schedule is used or a district needs to go back to virtual education only;
  • Accommodating educators uncomfortable with returning to the classroom and the potential staffing shortage in the event this issue is not adequately resolved;
  • How to evaluate successful remote learning;
  • How to enforce proper social distancing, mask wearing and personal sanitation in the younger grades;
  • The costs of protective equipment such as masks, as well and new staffing requirements, and how districts will pay for these increased costs;
  • What evaluations, assessments and graduation requirements should be in place for high school students; and
  • The potential problems of a “Typhoid Mary” situation where a substitute teacher who may be in different schools and/or districts on different days is an asymptomatic carrier.

Toward the end of the meeting, Pamela Lampitt, the chair of the Assembly Education Committee asked a rhetorical question: In light of all the unknowns that districts are currently facing five weeks from the start of school, should the state should revisit the academic schedule to afford districts more time to prepare.