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Why didn’t N.J. schools go remote during Tuesday’s storm? Blame this state law


Patrick Wall, Chalkbeat Newark 6a00d8341bf7d953ef017c34ca22bf970b-800wi

Amid forecasts of a fearsome nor’easter, some New Jersey districts closed schools on Tuesday while others decided to stay open and brave the storm. But, to many people’s surprise, most schools didn’t go remote.

The little-known reason: Under a state law passed last year, remote learning only qualifies as an official school day during emergency school closures that last more than three consecutive days. A single day of online classes would not count as one of the 180 required annual school days.

“At this time, it’s not an option for us to do a remote day on a weather emergency — snow day, storms, anything like that,” said Dr. Norma Fernandez, deputy superintendent of Jersey City Public Schools, which canceled classes Tuesday. “It will not count toward the 180 days.”

Gov. Phil Murphy ordered all schools to return to full in-person instruction this school year. But to many families and educators, Tuesday seemed like the right time to temporarily revert to online learning.

After all, Murphy had declared a state of emergency Monday evening in anticipation of the storm, which was forecasted to bring flash flooding and powerful winds. In a press release, his office advised residents to “stay off the roads.”

“Use your common sense,” Murphy said at a press briefing Tuesday morning. “And, if you can, stay home.”

But the restriction on remote learning, established by the state law passed in April 2020, all but ensured that school districts would not switch to virtual classes on Tuesday. Even if teachers and families had the necessary technology, the online school day would not count towards the 180-day requirement.

Some advocates say the law should be updated to allow remote learning during short-term emergencies.

“Today and other emergency weather situations, heat issues, etc. are examples of why we need legislation to offer virtual instruction as an option,” said Dr. Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, in an email. He added that his group is urging lawmakers to revise the law.

With remote learning off the table, districts had to decide Tuesday whether to cancel classes entirely or remain open despite the impending storm. Districts that decided to call off classes included Jersey City, Montclair, East Orange, and Paterson, where officials were persuaded by Murphy’s order for residents to remain at home if possible.

“His office basically said that, in a state of emergency, people need to stay off the roads,” said Paterson Public Schools spokesperson Paul Brubaker.

Newark, the state’s largest school district, decided to keep schools open. The choice upset some teachers, who complained about unsafe driving conditions due to heavy rainfall Tuesday morning.

“Why are these surrounding districts closed and Newark is open?” said a high school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation. “It really makes no sense to any of us who are here.”

Despite schools remaining open, many staffers and students did not show up, the teacher said. A different Newark teacher said Tuesday morning that only about 30 students showed up to her elementary school.

A district spokesperson did not respond to an email Tuesday asking about the decision to stay open and how many students were in attendance.

The state law limiting virtual instruction to longer-term closures irked some people who had to show up to school Tuesday. But there might be a silver lining: the return of snow days, which many feared would go extinct after the pandemic showed it was possible for students to attend class over Zoom. 

If a single day of remote learning won’t count as an official school day, then schools might be more inclined to cancel classes during a snowstorm. Fernandez, the Jersey City schools official, said she would prefer to give students a snow day this winter instead of keeping them at home, glued to their computers.

“It’s good to go outside and play,” she said. “After a while, we all need those mental health days.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.