The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) released a 104-page plan on June 26 to guide local school districts in reopening schools in September. The plan requires all school districts to publicly announce, four weeks before school starts, how they are going to resume instruction.
Schools must offer some form of in-person instruction when they open, Gov. Murphy said when he announced the plan, but they may also supplement classroom teaching with online instruction. To help meet social distancing requirements, districts may offer split sessions or rotate in-person instruction with virtual learning, possibly on alternate days, in a manner determined at the local level.
The state plan, “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education,” is less specific regarding health guidelines than the state’s leading education groups had hoped.
“The state plan provides flexibility, which is a good thing, because the best decisions for children’s education are made as close as possible to the local board office, schoolhouse and classroom,” said NJSBA Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod. “We are, however, functioning during a public health emergency.
“We are concerned that health procedures including contact tracing, which require special expertise, are being assigned to local school districts,” Feinsod continued. “Another concern is the capacity for local and county health departments to provide the assistance to local school districts as outlined in the report.
“In the end, boards of education, working with superintendents and staff, will do an excellent job of educating students. The state plan, as currently written, needs firmer guidance in the critical areas of public health and safety.”
NJSBA to Provide Policy Assistance “For local boards of education, another important matter involves the policies they will have to adopt in order for the locally developed plans to move forward,” Feinsod continued. “NJSBA is seeking clarification on that matter and will provide local boards of education with model documents and other policy assistance.”
The state plan acknowledges that the coronavirus may suddenly require a return to virtual instruction at any time during the school year. At a Senate Education Committee hearing on June 8, Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet reported that 89,000 students were without internet access. The state plan requires that students have internet access and suggests that districts apply for funding to achieve that goal.
It is unclear, however, how many students will still be unable to connect to the internet by September. Repollet said on June 26 that he was surveying districts to find out what they need to establish online service, and he pledged to make those survey results public. Schools will be required to assess the level of student achievement and to implement remedial instruction in an equitable fashion.
As the reopening plan was announced, Commissioner Repollet addressed the minimum health and safety requirements.
School districts must establish plans for screening students and employees for symptoms of COVID-19 and a history of exposure, according to Repollet. In addition, they must strive for social distancing within the classroom and on school buses.
“If schools are not able to maintain this physical distance, additional modifications should be in place, including physical barriers between desks and turning desks to face the same direction,” said Repollet. “Each school district must also adopt cleaning and disinfecting procedures.”
Under the state plan, students are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings and are required to do so when social distancing cannot be maintained, unless doing so would inhibit the student’s health.
The plan calls for district-level “Restart Committees” to identify procedures regarding reopening and to coordinate with local boards of health to inform local health and safety policies. The plan also includes the creation of “Pandemic Response Teams” at each school in the district.