As school concludes for many New Jersey districts this week, the New Jersey School Boards Association reflects back on how COVID-19 has made a lasting impact on the essential business of public education.

Like every educational institution in the nation, NJSBA was faced with alarming government announcements about an unprecedented pandemic circulating and reports that thousands of K-12 public schools would likely be shut down in the state.

It was that now-infamous day, Friday, March 13, 2020, when Gov. Phil Murphy held a news conference announcing the state was working with districts for “extended closure plans to prepare for a potential statewide closure” to ensure the safety of schoolchildren, educators, staff and the overall general public health. Days later, Murphy ordered statewide school closures, which were eventually extended until the end of that school year. NJSBA had to figure out how to keep its workforce safe and still deliver its state-mandated training and professional development services, resources and support to 580 school districts and member charter schools.

NJSBA Digital Media Producer Robin Kampf, an award-winning film director and producer, documented the Association’s experience for the historical record. Her film provides the education community and the public with a glimpse of how the 108-year-old entity transformed its delivery of services to support New Jersey school leaders and the 1.4 million students who were learning at home for the first time. Kampf and Michael Kvidahl, the Association’s manager of digital communications and marketing, spent three months conducting 15 staff interviews to chronicle their experience in a 13-minute documentary film, “Surviving and Thriving: Conducting the essential business of public education in N.J. during COVID-19.”

What they found was no surprise. Staff members shared their memories of nervousness about the unknowns of the novel Coronavirus-19, and of experiencing emotional, mental and professional challenges during 12-hour days of online meetings and countless phone calls, as they worked to devise alternative plans to serve members.

“By the time the second week of March rolled around, it was getting to a point where it didn’t look like it was sustainable — meaning keeping New Jersey School Boards open and keeping the schools open,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association. “Friday, March 13, rolled around and the night before I was tossing and turning at home trying to sleep, but I couldn’t.”

The NJSBA demonstrated its resilience and agility by creating a special COVID-19 webpage offering school leaders daily updates concerning state and federal guidelines and mandates and legal updates pertaining to public meetings exclusively conducted on a virtual platform while complying with the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

The Association experienced tremendous growth in web traffic, as school officials were constantly seeking the latest information.

NJSBA began offering Facebook Live training sessions and discussions about hot topics in education to offer members a lifeline for information. Meetings of the 21 county school boards association went all-virtual, offering programs on school ethics,  new federal funding options passed by Congress, and how to frequently and effectively communicate with their various stakeholders.

The NJSBA’s annual Workshop conference, traditionally held in Atlantic City every October, and typically attracting 8,000 registrants, was moved to an emerging digital platform that staff customized. The conference provided school officials with more than 100 professional development training programs, featured an interactive life-like exhibit floor and vendor demonstrations, student performances, guest speakers, small group sessions in the evenings for education and networking, and even a student STEAM Tank contest that attracted 240 teams that were judged virtually.

“What happened was a minor miracle. It all came together,” Feinsod said of the virtual Workshop conferences held in 2020 and 2021. “I’m not suggesting that this was better than in person. Nothing beats in person. But boy, this was the next best thing.”

Silver linings

Virtual and hybrid services are here to stay as part of the NJSBA’s toolkit to meet the needs of school officials.

“The attitude was powerful, and I felt it all over the state virtually,” Feinsod said. “It was a can-do attitude.”

However, the champions in all of this mass COVID-19 confusion were the boards of education, district officials, educators, parents and students, who juggled all the demands of learning and teaching from home.

What they were able to achieve was nothing short of “heroic,” according to NJSBA Chief Public Affairs Officer Janet Bamford.