More than three months after the state closed its school buildings because of the pandemic, 89,000 students still can’t access online classes, and the state isn’t sure how many students, in some districts, are actually participating in online instruction.

Those were among the items discussed in a sometimes contentious hearing held by the Senate Education Committee on Monday. Senators asked New Jersey Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet to discuss the obstacles that need to be overcome if schools are to reopen safely in September.

Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa Ruiz said that “it is wholeheartedly unacceptable to me” that 89,000 students still lack internet access. She said the NJDOE must guarantee that all students would have an equal opportunity to learn online if the coronavirus forces schools to close again in the fall, and she suggested that the Murphy administration should cover the cost to get students online until federal CARES Act money comes in.

Repollet promised the committee that he would send a survey to districts this week to find out their technology needs, and he said he would provide the committee with results of that survey by Friday. By “the middle of June,” Repollet said his department would submit guidance to the governor’s office on how districts can decide whether it is safe to reopen schools in the fall. The guidance will be released to school districts after the governor’s office completes its review.

Ruiz also said the NJDOE should provide all districts with the tools they need to measure the amount of learning that occurred during the school building closure. When an NJDOE official pointed out that New Jersey procurement laws can delay major purchases by more than a year, Ruiz said she wanted to know what laws must be changed or waived so that all students can be online by September.

Other topics addressed included:

  • Regarding federal CARES funding: 31 districts have not begun the application process, Repollet said, and 429 districts have “just started,” while 41 did not qualify for funding. June 30 will be the first round of payouts. Federal guidelines call for the CARES money to be spent by September 2021. Applications for funds must be submitted by Friday, June 19. (See separate story.)
  • The NJDOE’s plan for reopening schools will include flexibility for certifying new teachers who were unable to complete their student teaching or classroom observations because of the school building shutdown, the commissioner explained. NJSBA’s May 20 report “Searching for a ‘New Normal’ in New Jersey’s Public Schools: How the Coronavirus Is Changing Education in the Garden State,” called for a plan to help teacher candidates complete their training.
  • Ruiz and others, including 6th District Sen. James Beach, suggested that the state adopt a two-year budgeting cycle to help schools plan for future expenses.

Repollet said officials at the NJDOE were “working 12 hours a day,” to produce guidelines to reopen schools and to improve internet service. NJDOE staff attending the online hearing said that when the pandemic began in March, 110,000 students were without internet access. Since then, more than 20,000 students have been granted access to online classes.

Additional discussion focused on the following issues:

  • Professional development for teachers and staff to improve the delivery of virtual instruction.
  • Varying in-person student attendance schedules to help ease transportation issues and improve social distancing inside the school facility.
  • Providing in-person services for special education students.

The commissioner said he would like to meet again with the Senate Education Committee after the NJDOE’s guidance on reopening schools is released to the public.