On June 10, 2021, the Government Records Council (GRC) issued a special statement clarifying that records custodians for public school districts and charter schools must abide by pre-pandemic deadlines in responding to requests made under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

There is an exception to these deadlines for records related to a district’s or school’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The special statement was issued in response to legislation (P.L. 2021, c. 103/A5820), signed by the governor earlier this month and covered in School Board Notes, to end the public health emergency in place due to the pandemic. The GRC is an affiliate of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and is charged with ensuring the public’s right to access government records.

Background and Context  OPRA sets specific timelines within which districts and schools must respond to a public records request. In general, OPRA requires that a public agency respond to a request and provide access, or otherwise reply to a request, within seven business days. In light of the pandemic, OPRA was amended in March 2020 by P.L. 2020, c. 10 to lift the required response timelines during the pandemic.

Despite the relaxation of the response deadlines, records custodians were still required to “make a reasonable effort to respond to a request for access to a government record within seven business days or as soon as possible thereafter.” It should be noted that on March 26, 2020, the GRC issued a special statement to clarify records custodians’ obligations during the period of emergency.

However, the legislation signed this month, bringing an end to the pandemic state of emergency, marked a relative “return to normal” for school records custodians.

The June 10 special statement from the GRC clarifies that records custodians “shall immediately resume normal OPRA operations, except in those limited circumstances where a requestor is seeking records directly related to that agency’s COVID-19 response.” The statement interprets “COVID-19 response” to mean “those records directly, as opposed to tangentially, relating to the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Records custodians are referred to the March 2020 special statement for guidance about requests for records related to the district’s or school’s COVID-19 response.

For more information about this update or OPRA compliance requirements, board members should consult with their board attorney or call the Legal, Labor Relations, and Policy Department at (609) 278-5254.

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