Seasoned board members who served in the mid-2000s may remember that the state was focusing on the issue of pandemic; how communities would be affected; and, in particular how schools and educational programs would adapt during a shutdown. In 2006 the concern was the avian flu. At that time the avian flu had mutated to allow transmission from bird to human and there was a serious concern that it would mutate again allowing it to be transmitted directly from human to human. Such a mutation would have likely led to widespread infection with that virulent and deadly virus.

A 2006 edition of School Leader addressed issues related to health and included the topic of pandemic. In the article “Corners We Can’t Cut,” this author wrote: “No federal or state legislation currently requires schools to prepare for a pandemic or adopt policy. However, in the same way that we know summer vacation is coming we know a pandemic is coming, making it critical that schools take the initiative.”

We never had an avian flu pandemic, thankfully. However, as a society where national and international travel is routine and there is a robust global product market where goods travel freely between countries, we need to face the inevitability that the transmission of contagious diseases is always going to be a threat. Pandemic is here and now, and will be here again.

We have learned a lot during this COVID-19 crisis and we will keep learning. Learning is, after all, a school leader’s wheelhouse. Your questions and policy requests to NJSBA help develop and strengthen resources that can be shared with districts and charter schools across the state. Collaboration of this kind is invaluable in a crisis and beneficial at all other times. This situation is fluid and many of the policy requests are very specific to how individual school programs are being adapted in this situation. However, these unique policy solutions remain helpful as a place to start and give insight into the many considerations related to a virtual education landscape and virtual school governance.

Virtual Board Meetings Guidance for conducting virtual board meetings has been one of the most frequent inquiries to NJSBA’s policy and legal experts. In conducting remote meetings boards are required to comply with the Open Public Meetings Act (N.J.S.A. 10:4-6). The board must provide adequate notice of a virtual board meeting according to the law and in the same way that is required for in-person public meetings:

A. Prominently posted in at least one public place reserved for such announcements;

B. Communicated to at least two newspapers designated by the board because they have the greatest likelihood of informing the board’s public; and

C. Filed with the clerk of the municipality.

(From Critical Policy Reference Manual model policy: 9321 Time, Place Notification of Meetings)

In addition to the usual notification requirements, for virtual board meetings the district must conduct the meeting in a publicly accessible forum, and specify the web address or other access information in the notice. The district must pick a virtual venue that allows for public participation, and provide directions for how to submit comments during the public comment period of the meeting. Boards are restricted from meeting in closed session unless absolutely necessary. (Guidance issued from the state can be found on NJSBA’s COVID-19 webpage and on the state’s webpage)

Grading Policies Many districts are considering implementing a pass/fail grading system for the remainder of the year. While it is not required for the board to approve the grading system, changes to how students are graded tend to be controversial, so the board of education and the school administration need to be united when making this change. If a high school district moves to a pass/fail system, the calculation of class rank needs to be addressed, particularly if rank is used to determine the valedictorian and other awards for student achievement.

Employees Working from Home Policy requests have come in regarding working from home and the use of sick leave for employees who are sick, have been exposed to COVID-19, or have a family member who is sick or exposed. Executive Order 103, gave the New Jersey Civil Service Commission the authority “to waive, suspend, or modify any existing rule when the rule is detrimental to the public welfare….”

The governor issued Guidelines for State Employee Leave Time and Staffing – COVID-19 (March 12, 2020). These guidelines address altering work arrangements and the use of accrued sick time during this COVID-19 crisis for employees who are sick or exposed or must care for a family member who is sick or exposed. NJSBA amended a sample policy and regulation on the topics of attendance and working from home to include the components of the guidelines. Policy changes related to the guidelines may not be the best course of action because the guidelines apply specifically to the coronavirus and may not be valid for other contagions once we are beyond this crisis.

Virtual Education NJSBA staff members have been fielding many questions regarding virtual education. Existing policies do give applicable guidance.

Teacher/student electronic communications are covered in critical policy 4119.26/4219.26, Electronic Communication between Staff and Students. Teachers must maintain professional communications through the district provided network and devices when interacting with students. In addition critical policy 6142.10, Internet Safety and Technology, covers acceptable use of technology and the internet. Laws and board policy protecting student information should be enforced by ensuring that the virtual classrooms are accessible only to the teacher and students participating in the class and not to the public.

The board has to approve the curriculum each year. In critical policy 6141, Curriculum Design and Development, the board directs the chief school administrator to develop the curriculum and sets guidelines (in accordance with the law) on what it must contain. The board has already approved the curriculum for the 2019–2020 school year. If the move to the virtual classroom has required changing the curriculum then the changes would have to go before the board for approval (see policy 6140 Curriculum Adoption).

Live streaming student activities (ceremonies, award presentations, etc.) where student pictures and names are displayed as part of the presentation requires parental consent. Critical policy 5145.5, Photographs of Students, covers the required parental consent for protected student information. Usually districts have a general release that they distribute at the beginning of the year that covers pictures that are displayed throughout the year. When a district or school plans to release more information, such as names, the district/school typically gets a release signed that is specific to that occasion and the type of information that is being released. Getting consent specific to an event like a virtual ceremony helps protect against liability.

In NJSBA’s New Board Member Orientation program, we frequently say that good policy is meant to endure over time and that policy development is a careful and thoughtful process that requires research, stakeholder involvement, and consensus. Crisis situations evolve rapidly and what is true today may be very different tomorrow. That is not an optimal climate for a careful and thoughtful policy development process.

However, it is the role of school leaders to serve and reassure the public by confronting this crisis and leading the community into calmer waters. Policy is an important and meaningful way to demonstrate to the community that the board is being proactive.

Keep in mind as you craft new rules during this crisis, that the additions that were made based on guidance specific to the coronavirus may change, be enacted as laws or even become obsolete. Keep track of any policy changes made now, and when we are beyond this crisis review these policies, amend them as necessary or revise them to be consistent with new laws as they are promulgated.

For the sample and model policies and regulations discussed in this article or for help developing policy and regulation language to suit your needs do not hesitate to contact NJSBA Policy Services at policy@njsba.org.

The NJSBA COVID-19 Resource page has a listing of additional policies that may be of assistance:

  • 9322 Public and Executive Sessions – Virtual Board Meetings and COVID-19
  • 5141.2 Illness – Covers control of contagious diseases or conditions.
  • 4112.4 Health — Exposure control plan and bloodborne pathogens.
  • 5141 Health – Covers preparation for the potential disruption of a pandemic flu outbreak, and includes a link to federal resources on pandemic influenza.
  • 6173 – Home instruction during the prolonged absence.

Jean Harkness is an NJSBA policy consultant.

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