Since March, when the public health emergency went into effect, local boards of education and administrators have faced challenges unlike any others they experienced in their lifetimes. In the face of ever-changing, inconsistent and, often, inadequate state and federal guidance, they made critical decisions in the interest of students’ academic, physical and emotional health.

The role of the local board of education has always been integral to the educational process. But today, COVID-19, by altering lives of our students and their families, as well as the governance of public education, has underscored the importance of board responsibilities.

State guidelines require school districts to provide some level of in-person instruction, unless they document that they cannot meet the health standards issued in late August. While the majority of school districts started the 2020-2021 academic year with hybrid learning platforms, a significant number began the year on a virtual-only basis, needing to delay any in-person instruction for reasons ranging from a shortage of personal protective equipment to the inability to secure adequate staffing. Additionally, due to positive tests for the novel coronavirus among students and/or staff during the during the first weeks of class, some districts had to shift gears and temporarily implement all-remote instruction.

“Board members, superintendents and educators have done an exemplary job leading their school districts through this historically difficult time, identifying the right combination of in-person instruction and virtual learning, balanced with safeguards for the health of students, staff and families,” said NJSBA Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod. “They deserve the highest commendations for their creativity, flexibility and dedication to their students.”

Since March, NJSBA has committed its resources to helping local boards of education meet the challenges of the pandemic through training, advocacy, direct services and research. The Association generated three special reports—in the spring, summer and fall. (The May 20 report, “Searching for a ‘New Normal’ in New Jersey’s Public Schools,” was featured in the May/June issue of School Leader.)

In this issue, School Leader examines two subsequent special reports. The findings and recommendations of these projects were based on dozens of published articles and studies, more than half a dozen NJSBA surveys and interviews with board members and superintendents. (A fourth special report, on the psychological impact of the pandemic on students, will be issued in early 2021.)

Going forward, we believe that the information contained in our series of special reports will prove valuable to our members and help inform public policy on education during the pandemic and beyond.

Key Findings and Recommendations

Findings from the Aug. 31 report, “Choosing the Best Road Back for Our Children,” included the following: 

  • In the face of ever-changing, inconsistent and, often, inadequate state and federal guidance, school districts have moved forward with reopening plans designed to meet the needs of their students, but these efforts have come at a financial cost that could have negative consequences in other areas.
  • Additional state and federal support is necessary for the purchase of personal protective equipment, educational technology, and frequent sanitizing of facilities, as well as other expenditures to enable social distancing.
  • New Jersey’s school districts continue to need strong, universal health and safety protocols from the New Jersey Department of Health to assure students, parents and staff of the safety of in-person instruction.

The “Choosing the Best Road Back” report also called for the approval of Senate Bill 2507, and its counterpart, Assembly Bill 4178, which would authorize school districts to use capital reserve funds and their emergency reserve accounts to ease financial problems districts were facing. 

The report noted that Assembly Bill 4440 and Senate Bill 2634 would offer necessary liability protection for public entities, including K-12 school districts and their employees, protecting them from COVID-related claims. Another measure, Assembly Bill 4426, would grant immunity specifically to school districts and their employees. The bill makes immunity contingent upon a district acting in good faith by complying with, or exceeding, all applicable public health and safety measures. 

The third report in the series, “Reopening Schools: Racing to Close the Digital Divide,” due to be released this fall, focused on the digital divide and challenges districts faced in making sure that students had access to a high-quality education no matter where they lived. 

Findings and recommendations in the third report included:

  • Provide a transparent status update on internet access. After making $54 million in federal aid available to improve student access to the internet, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) should make public the status of those efforts. How much of money has been allocated? Which districts will receive it? How will the money be spent? If there is a funding shortfall, what is it, and how can it be addressed?
  • Identify the private funds donated and spent. On July 19, Gov. Murphy said that the state Economic Development Authority would solicit private funds from organizations and corporations. What is the status of that effort? What districts will receive the funds? How can local boards of education contact the EDA, identify needs, and work with donors on addressing needs?
  • Develop a statewide report on what students learned during the shutdown and a strategic plan to address learning loss. Working with local districts, the NJDOE should assess what level of student learning occurred during the shutdown. Aggregated data should be collected and shared with the public, so that we have a clear, statewide picture of what happened during the pandemic. This is the first step toward developing a funded strategic plan to help address the damage.
  • Develop a statewide report on the delivery of special education services. What happened to New Jersey’s 246,693 special education students during the shutdown? What will happen if schools are forced to shut down again? What is the state plan to address the learning loss of special education students, and what do state and federal laws require? 
  • Identify the quality of online instruction and develop a program to improve it. Online instruction—whether it is a 100% virtual program or a hybrid of virtual and in-person teaching—is likely to be with the state’s schools for many months to come. As the June 8, 2020 Microsoft report, “Education Reimagined: The Future of Learning” points out, “…traditional pedagogy does not transfer flawlessly to digital.” Teachers need professional development to effectively teach classes online. How can the NJDOE help districts and provide resources to assess and improve the quality of online instruction?
  • Consider enrolling in a new program to improve remote instruction. The Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools program issued a report in August called the Remote Digital Learning Roadmap. The digital schools program is supported by the NJSBA, the NJDOE, the College of New Jersey and other leading educational agencies. Board of education members should be aware of this new program and, working with their superintendents, see how it can help improve their districts’ remote learning programs. 
  • Chart a digital future. Teachers, administrators and staff made heroic efforts to launch online learning programs practically overnight. Now is the time to move forward with what was learned and to incorporate digital discoveries into the curriculum. Teachers and school districts should be supported so that this historically sad period in our history leads to a reimagining of the way educators connect with students and parents, taking full advantage of the many positive aspects that technology has to offer. There should be no return to the status quo, but an embrace of the possibilities of the future.

The report on the digital divide revealed the results of an NJSBA survey of superintendents at the end of July which asked, “What percentage of students in your district need additional support —such as access to the internet and technological equipment—to participate in virtual instruction.”

Nearly a quarter of the superintendents who responded said that 16% or more of their students lacked internet access.    

In Part Two of the report on the digital divide, the NJSBA acknowledged that “before the potential of online learning can be realized, access to the internet must be universal—and free in high-poverty areas, with high-quality professional development for teachers.”

Starting with that imperative, the NJSBA’s report explored the possibilities expressed in a 34-page report by Microsoft, released in June called, “Education Reimagined: The Future of Learning,” which encouraged districts to embrace a digital revolution that is already available to them.   

“How will we choose to respond?” the “Education Reimagined” report asked. “Will we patch together a reaction (to the pandemic), or use this opportunity to transform the system itself? The question becomes, what will be more appealing—reverting to the status quo or using the opportunity to help students become knowledgeable and skilled change makers through deeper learning? We argue that the solutions lie before us. We have the opportunity to creatively manage the immediate issues while building a bridge to a reimagined education system.”

Conclusion: Meeting Challenges, Preparing for the Future 

The reports generated by the NJSBA illustrate the incredible value of technology, which had been used in the educational milieu prior to the pandemic and which is growing in significance. It is the future. It’s the way our students communicate with each other, and we should embrace what we have learned and use it to keep improving our schools and the way we deliver education to students.

Unfortunately, the pandemic is not over. For the rest of this school year, and perhaps parts of next year as well, cases of the virus, and fear of the virus, probably will require some level of remote instruction.

Throughout the crisis, however long it lasts, the NJSBA hopes its series of reports will provide resources and support that school districts will need—now and in the future. Clearly, the role of board of education members has never been more important as they represent the values of their communities, while educating 1.4 million public school students. 

Alan Guenther, assistant editor of the NJSBA, served as a researcher and writer for the special reports.