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Searching for a ‘New Normal’ in New Jersey’s Public Schools

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MAY 20,2020

The selectively lethal coronavirus spread through New Jersey at a pace that would make a wildfire seem like a wisp of smoke. On Wednesday, March 4, New Jersey had its first diagnosed case.

On Tuesday, March 10, New Jersey reported its first coronavirus death.

By the time Gov. Phil Murphy signed his historic Executive Order 104, which closed all New Jersey schools on March 18, there were 178 New Jersey cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. On May 18, only two months later, New Jersey officials are reporting 148,039 coronavirus cases and 10,435 deaths– the second-highest numbers in the nation.

During the 71 days that have passed since the first death from the virus in New Jersey, elementary and secondary education in New Jersey underwent an urgent metamorphosis. The closing of school buildings, and the gallant efforts of teachers, administrators, and local boards of education to launch online instruction, practically overnight, likely saved thousands of lives. Students, teachers and administrators pushed past personal tragedies to do their jobs. In Newark, for example, where 66 teachers, administrators and staff tested positive, and six died, building principals drove through city streets as late as 11 p.m., hand-delivering Chromebook computers to some of the 11,000 students who needed them to join lessons online.

With all of the efforts to respond to the crisis, reports about the quality of the online instruction for students varied. In an NJSBA survey sent last month,5 one respondent called online instruction “a work in progress.” Respondents in some rural areas reported problems with internet access.

About 20,000 Paterson students were unable to participate in online instruction, relying instead on paper packages, Paul Brubaker, the district’s communications director, told NJSpotlight.com on May 14.

 Others, especially in suburban districts with adequate resources, reported the transition to online instruction had gone smoothly.

On April 28, the New Jersey Leadership for Educational Excellence (LEE) sent a letter to Gov. Murphy, urging him to keep schools closed for the remainder of the academic year. The LEE group is a coalition of the state’s major education organizations, including NJSBA.

“Reopening schools presents serious challenges that are far more complex than even those involved in closing schools and moving to online instruction,” the letter said. “These include, but are certainly not limited to, readjusting curriculum, designing remediation for students who may have fallen behind during the closure, and accommodating social distancing and other preventive measures in the classroom, in cafeterias and gymnasiums, on school buses, and during extra-curricular activities.”

“Above all else, parents, students and school staff must be assured that health will not be compromised when schools reopen,” the leaders of the LEE organizations 3 continued. “The current data do not indicate that we can provide such assurance if schools reopen in the spring.”

At a press conference on May 4, the governor announced schools would stay closed for the rest of the current academic year, that is, until at least June 30.7

The extended closure gives superintendents and boards of education 111 days until the Tuesday after Labor Day, the traditional start of the new school year, to decide a multitude of issues that must be resolved before schools can reopen. The challenge facing school districts is how to establish a “new normal,” in the midst of a global pandemic caused by a virus that will likely still be present when schools finally do reopen.

To provide information on key issues, the NJSBA announced on April 16 that it would issue a report concerning the following issues:

• Measuring the academic progress made by students during a period of virtual instruction;

• Providing necessary remedial preparation;

• Adjusting educational programs to accommodate social distancing and other preventive measures;

• Maintaining adequate sanitation of school facilities, and

• Determining the pandemic’s impact on school finances.

Since April 16, the NJSBA has researched more than 100 articles, publications and studies, conducted interviews with school administrators, mental health experts and board of education members, and analyzed more than 1,000 responses to a survey issued to local school district leaders.

Some administrators and board members said, quite understandably, that they had not had time to grieve the loss of key staff. They were fighting exhaustion caused by the constant air of crisis and the non-stop rapid-fire of events since the governor ordered schools closed. Immediate answers to questions that no local school leader has ever faced in New Jersey in at least 100 years proved elusive.

Still, the NJSBA identified common problems and first thoughts about solutions. The schools must try to reopen, the interview subjects agreed. But the health and safety of students, teachers and staff are paramount. How much risk is acceptable? What safety measures are essential, and how can schools afford them? What would relieve financial pressure on schools? What conditions would establish a health emergency that would trigger schools to close again?

Strategies and Recommendations

Based on interviews and research, this special report presents strategies for the consideration of local school districts and recommendations for action by state and federal governments.

  1. Mental Health The mental health of students and staff is of the greatest  importance. Before schools reopen, and before any evaluative tests are administered, school districts should make a sustained effort to establish a sense of calm and trust so that learning, and assessment of learning, can occur.
  2. Communication Administrators should engage in early, sustained communication with board members, parents and staff, outlining and thoroughly explaining the measures being taken so that they can instill confidence that schools will be a safe place. Before school reopens, all stakeholders should understand what the “new normal” will be, and how it will work.
  3.  Protective Equipment Guidelines To sustain the health of students and staff, boards of education should work with their superintendents to adopt clear guidelines establishing the level of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that will be provided by the district and what equipment may be brought from home. For example, will facemasks be required? What types of masks are acceptable? How will local PPE standards compare with guidelines from the state, the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies?
  4.  Emergency Action Plan Before schools reopen, boards of education should work with their superintendents to revise closing plans that address the resumption of full online instruction if school buildings are again closed due to health and safety considerations.
  5.  Diagnostic Tool Once a safe learning environment is re-established, academic assessment, that is appropriate to each district, should be administered to determine each students’ educational progress and to identify the need for remediation.
  6.  Remedial Programs As early as possible in the budgeting process, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) should identify available funding for school districts to address the remedial needs of students.
  7.  Flexibility The NJDOE should ensure that districts have the financial and regulatory flexibility they need to respond to the crisis. The New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJQSAC), which is the state’s monitoring and district self-evaluation system, should either be suspended or revised so that districts are not penalized for taking actions necessary to address the pandemic.
  8.  Provide School Districts with Updated Financial Data To plan for the eventual reopening of schools, education leaders need accurate information now on the pandemic’s impact on revenue. Toward this goal, the state must provide local boards of education with updated information on funding for the 2020-2021 school year. Waiting until the governor’s new budget message in August is too late.
  9. A Menu of Options for Reopening In developing a blueprint to guide the reopening of schools, state education officials should work with stakeholder organizations and consider other states’ plans, such 5 as Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Education, released May 6; and the Missouri School Boards Association plan, Pandemic Recovery Considerations: Re-Entry and Reopening, issued May 5. Both plans offer a variety of strategies and encourage districts to choose options that work best for their communities. 10. Help Teacher Candidates Complete Training Schools were closed before teacher candidates could complete required classroom observations and training. New Jersey should formulate an appropriate plan to provide an adequate pool of teacher candidates for the upcoming year. Other states, including California and Maryland, have developed plans to help teacher candidates complete their training.

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