To say these are challenging times is an understatement. As COVID-19 continues to spread in New Jersey and across the nation, we are all adjusting to new realities.
On March 16, Gov. Phil Murphy issued a statewide Executive Order, which took effect on March 18, closing all schools –public and private. The schools “shall remain closed as long as this Order remains in effect,” stated Executive Order 104. Since then, there have been additional restrictions on life and commerce in New Jersey, all with the goal of slowing the transmission of the COVID-19 virus in the general population.
The New Jersey School Boards Association, like other organizations, is working hard to meet members’ needs during this crisis. While the majority of employees are working from home, they are reachable via email during normal business hours. The Association has created a special webpage with resources and information, at www.njsba.org/COVID-19. It is updated frequently, sometimes multiple times in a day. NJSBA’s legal, labor relations, policy, governmental relations, and communications departments have all been answering questions from board members and school districts throughout the crisis.
NJSBA has cancelled all programs and meetings for the near future. But to continue to fulfill member’s needs, the Association has scheduled a full roster of webinars, podcasts, and Facebook Live events offering advice and sharing best practices.
All of those events are archived and can be watched through the NJSBA website. Follow the links on www.njsba.org/COVID-19.
SAMPLING OF THE FACEBOOK LIVE EVENTS:
NJSBA I-STEAM and Sustainability Update I, March 25, Hosted by John Henry, I-STEAM and sustainable schools specialist, the program addressed preparing for home instruction and this year’s STEAM Tank Challenge. Update II was held on March 27.
Update from the Field, March 25, Gwen Thornton and Kathy Helewa, NJSBA field service representatives, answered pressing questions on school district governance and board operations.
Legally Speaking, March 26, NJSBA Counsel John Burns answered questions being received through the Association’s Attorney of the Day service during the current crisis.
Conversations on New Jersey Education, NJSBA’s podcast program broadcast over BlogTalkRadio.com, has featured a series of interviews focused on school leadership during the COVID-19 health crisis. Among those programs:
Advocacy in the Age of COVID-19, March 27, NJSBA’s governmental relations staff discussed the COVID-19 outbreak and how it might affect the state budget, as well as the proposed health benefits legislation and other pending legislation.
Conversations with Educators on the COVID-19 Front Line, March 31 Since schools closed, one of the biggest challenges facing districts has been meeting the needs of our special education students. Andrea Romano, Sussex County Educational Services Commission superintendent, talked about how her districts has taken steps to provide students with the best virtual education.
The Virtual Resources Webinar Series has included programs such as:
Internet Access for All Students During the COVID-19 Crisis A review of the paths to acquiring internet services for students, and of the steps the FCC has taken to ensure that delays do not put district E-rate funding support in jeopardy.
Online Learning: How to Protect Your District’s Data During the COVID-19 Crisis Cybersecurity is challenging for districts with schools delivering education programs virtually. Comprehensive and easy-to-manage solutions for the physical and cybersecurity challenges facing school districts during this crisis.
Remote Collaboration in a Crisis How to better collaborate with district staff and board members during the COVID-19 health crisis. A review of online tools for supporting virtual school board meetings.
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS FROM MEMBERS
Below we have gathered together answers to some of the most common questions we have received. Many of these answers are also available via other NJSBA resources, including Association podcasts, and memos that have posted. We urge you to check the NJSBA COVID-19 webpage; it is updated regularly as new information is released, including information from the New Jersey Department of Education; and the state Division of Local Government Services, which is the part of the Department of Community Affairs that provides guidance on meetings held by government bodies such as school boards.
Please keep in mind that this is indeed, uncharted territory. The answers, particularly to the questions with a legal aspect, represent current guidance from the state departments of education, health, and community affairs. Boards of education should always consult with their own legal counsel about specific circumstances in their district.
Can boards of education meet remotely via teleconferencing or videoconferencing?
Yes, it is not only permitted, but encouraged, according to a March 23 guidance memo from the state Division of Local Government Services. “In light of the governor’s issuance of Executive order 107, we have been strongly encouraged to conduct all public meetings subject to the Open Public Meetings Act exclusively using communications equipment (e.g. telephonic conference call-in connections, internet streaming, etc.) for te foreseeable future without providing a physical meeting place,” noted the document released by DCA. Previously, in a March 12 memo, the Division of Local Government Services had advised boards conducting remote meetings to also have a physical location for the meeting.
Of course, a board needs to make sure it is still fulfilling all its duties under the Open Public Meeting Act (OPMA), also known as the Sunshine Law. “Local units must ensure that the public retains to ability to attend and provide comment at public meetings,” the memo says, “Therefore, local units should provide instructions to the public regarding how to access a remote meting and the procedures for commenting through whatever equipment or medium is utilized.” The division’s release, available at the COVID-19 Resource Center details common means of conducting remote public meetings through conference phones, web-based conference calls (with and without video), and live-streaming through social media platforms. It also suggests multiple options for accepting public comments.
As is the case with regular meetings, boards must provide proper notice of the meeting. Guidance recently issued makes clear that in the case of an emergency meeting, boards can issue notice electronically.
Boards — particularly those which have only teleconference and not video capabilities — should also take care to post on their website all written materials (such as PowerPoint presentations) that will be discussed during the board meeting so the public has access to them.
Do boards of education need to have passed a board policy to permit remote meetings?
Having a board policy or something in the board bylaws that addresses that would be a best practice that NJSBA would strongly recommend. However, given the governor’s Executive Order 107, and the bill, A-3813, which allows boards to operate remotely during times of declared states of emergency, and the guidance memos from the state’s Division of Local Government Services, it is our judgement that the board could operate remotely during these times without an existing policy. Note that the NJSBA COVID-19 resource webpage (www.njsba.org/COVID-19) has sample policies and bylaws, including one that addresses remote meetings, that boards can use.
Can board of education committee meetings — like negotiations committee meetings — be held virtually?
Yes. There has never been any requirement that a committee meeting be open to the public, so long as there is not a quorum of the board attending the committee meeting.
Can boards of education hold executive, or closed, sessions during remote meetings?
Yes. The DCA’s Division of Local Government Services has provided guidance on that, saying that if a board which is meeting remotely wants to go into closed session, for one of the permitted reasons, it may do so. It urges boards to “consider using a separate, non-public, dial-in mechanism for the executive or closed portion of the meeting.”
However boards are advised to only go into closed session when there is an pressing need, “[l]ocal units holding meetings remotely are advised to avoid entering executive or closed session unless the topic of concern is urgent, directly affects the health, safety, or welfare of residents, and is an allowed exception as listed in N.J.S.A 10:4-12, given the difficulty of ensuring only appropriate individuals are on the line during a separate session.”
Ensuring that only board members are present in the room for a closed session may be a concern. NJSBA has heard of some boards which have their board attorneys draw up a document for members of the board to sign that indicates they are alone during a virtual closed session, and no one can hear or observe the executive session meeting. This is always a concern when dealing with personnel or student issues. That might help make the board and public feel more comfortable with using remote devices to hold executive sessions. NJSBA suggests speaking with your board attorney about this.
Can a board hold a meeting that only consists of an executive session?
There has never been a mechanism where boards may convene only a closed session. Boards should open a public meeting, then vote to go into closed session, as usual. All board meetings must also include a public comment portion of the meeting.
Can Donaldson hearings (an employee who has been “nonrenewed” has a right, upon request, to make an informal appearance before the school board; these are called Donaldson hearings) be held remotely by video- or teleconference?
Yes; of course, boards should take care to follow all standard procedures.
Can anyone be in the school buildings while schools are closed?
In its guidance, the NJDOE noted it is likely that certain staff would be needed in most districts, include the chief school administrator, the school business administrator, IT staff, staff involved in the preparation and delivery of food and maintenance staff to provide access to district facilities and to clean and sanitize the buildings as needed.
How should boards handle hourly workers such as bus drivers and paraprofessionals?
Boards should make every effort to re-purpose these employees to perform different jobs, with reasonable limits. If there is absolutely no accommodation available, they should speak to the board attorney and union about any additional options and/or the executive county superintendent.
Boards have several tasks to accomplish in the spring. Are deadlines still the same for superintendent evaluation (the evaluation procedure for a non-tenured chief school administrator must be completed by July 1 each year) and for non-renewal of staff (each year by May 15, boards must provide each non-tenured teaching staff member either with an offer of employment for the next school year, or with a notice of non-renewal)?
NJSBA has not been notified of any changes in those deadlines, so the timeframes remain the same.
The New Jersey School Boards Association remains committed to answering board member and school staff questions, and will post questions and answers on our webpage and in School Board Notes.