One year ago, on March 16, Gov. Phil Murphy issued a historic order that would reshape education in New Jersey. To reduce the rate of community transmission of COVID-19, Murphy ordered all schools to close by Wednesday, March 18.
With that, New Jersey’s students, school board members, teachers, administrators, staff, and families were plunged into uncharted territory. Drawing on a reserve of persistence, courage and ingenuity, educators continued to provide instruction outside of the familiar structures of classrooms and schools.
Teachers and students had to quickly become familiar with using videoconferencing programs, and they transitioned to conducting the school day remotely. Educators tried to infuse normalcy into the day by conducting the Pledge of Allegiance and morning announcements online, scheduling exercise breaks, and commemorating occasions like graduation with virtual ceremonies.
Other educators and students, who were without proper technology and access, struggled to continue instruction with paper packets of information, as districts and the state worked to shrink the digital divide. Meanwhile, schools continued to provide meals to students who qualified for free- and reduced-price lunches, packing meals to go, and delivering them to students’ homes, or arranging for families to pick up meals at schools.
“We all applaud our state’s local boards and the entire public school community for their flexibility and dedication in continuing to educate our students during this pandemic year,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director.
NJSBA’s Pandemic Outreach The New Jersey School Boards Association also went remote on March 16, and shifted into action to continue to provide resources and training to its members. “I also want to commend NJSBA’s staff for their efforts in continuously providing up-to-the-minute information and resources for our members throughout the past 12 months,” said Feinsod.
Without the ability to hold its scheduled roster of in-person training sessions and meetings, the Association began to hold original online programs, which are broadcast live and then archived on the NJSBA website. On a weekly basis, NJSBA has presented at least five original online training and informational programs, including webinars, Facebook Live events, online professional development, podcasts and videos.
County meetings continued throughout the summer, and School Board Notes continued to publish weekly through the summer to update members on the frequent changes in guidance from the state and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A new webpage was begun, focusing on pandemic-related issues, guidance and resources. In the fall, that website was redesigned to focus on the challenges of the 2020-2021 school year.
The Association’s signature direct services continued uninterrupted as well. Field Service Representatives conducted training sessions to boards virtually, and the Legal, Labor Relations and Policy department responded to daily requests for information on school law, negotiations, and policy.
NJSBA also undertook the research and writing of a series of special reports on education during the pandemic. The reports included:
- Searching for a ‘New Normal’ in New Jersey’s Public Schools: How the Coronavirus Is Changing Education in the GardenState (May 20, 2020) addresses the safe reopening of schools, students’ mental health, academic and extracurricular programs, budgetary issues, and preparations for the future.
- Choosing the Best ‘Road Back’ for Our Children (August 31, 2020) provides an advocacy agenda for public education during the pandemic, including state and federal funding, assistance in securing personal protective equipment and technology, financial flexibility, and critical changes in law and regulation.
- Reopening Schools: Online Learning and the Digital Divide (October 23, 2020) looks at the challenges facing school districts in delivering instruction remotely to all students during the pandemic and beyond.
- Eye on the Future as Districts Monitor Student Mental Health (January 27, 2021) shows how mental health programs are helping students withstand the pandemic.
As of Friday, March 12, 2,823,731 doses of the vaccine have been administered in New Jersey, with about a million people fully vaccinated. While the state is working towards “herd immunity,” there will still be the need to continue safety precautions such as masks and social distancing. But as more schools are opening for expanded in-person learning, there is a palpable sense that life will become more normal in the not-too-distant future.
The NJSBA, like the school boards it serves, is looking forward to eventually resuming some level of in-person sessions and meetings. It is clear that the Association will continue to include virtual programming as a permanent part of its operations. However it is accomplished, the mission of NJSBA remains constant: to promote the achievement of all students through effective governance.