Just the FAQs: What the State DOE Is Telling Schools About COVID-19

[Updated: May 11, 2020] The NJ Department of Education adds information on federal stimulus aid and virtual high school graduations
Credit: Michael Coghlan via Flickr
Distance learning

As of May 11:

Gov. Phil Murphy said one of the hardest issues he grappled with in deciding whether to close schools for the rest of the academic year was how high school graduations would take place.

With live commencements now ruled out, the state Department of Education this weekend released guidance for the alternatives, namely virtual graduations.

“Since the Executive Orders will remain in effect until further notice, only virtual graduation ceremonies can be planned at this time,” the guidance reads.

“Recognizing that high school graduation is certainly a milestone for students and families, the Department has compiled tips and suggestions for holding virtual graduation ceremonies and related celebratory activities to honor this year’s graduating class while ensuring the health and safety of the school community during the COVID-19 emergency,” wrote the state’s guidance.

Q: What are the options?

A: “Virtual Graduation Ceremonies offer a number of ways to celebrate this year’s graduating class. From airing graduation messages on local network stations to designing virtual graduations on gaming platforms, virtual graduations offer districts an opportunity to involve the community in planning and facilitating a memorable ceremony.

“Below are some ideas for hosting a virtual ceremony:

  • Stream your ceremony on your district website or on another streaming service that includes prerecorded speeches or messages
  • Consider reaching out to celebrities or public figures to record speeches or messages for seniors in your school district
  • If resources allow, your district may consider developing a virtual reality graduation, where within a virtual graduation environment, student avatars participate in a graduation ceremony
  • Schools can also consider asking members of the graduating class to take a leading role in the graduation ceremony. Senior students can be asked in advance to send video messages wearing their cap and gown and/or other regalia.”

Q: Is there a way for communities to share their ideas?

A: “We welcome you to share your virtual graduation celebration or related activities by using the hashtag #NJGrad2020 on social media.”

As of May 9:

As New Jersey schools move to the long haul of remote instruction, the next big challenge is a financial one, both in terms of state support but also the federal stimulus.

Districts starting today will be able to apply for $280 million in federal funds under the CARES Act and specifically the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSERF).

“Getting this funding flowing to our districts is a win for our schools, our educators, our students and our taxpayers,” Gov. Phil Murphy said Saturday.

Q: What will the money be for?

A: “The core purpose of the Education Stabilization Fund is to provide direct money to school districts and allow funding to support areas impacted by the disruption and closure of schools from COVID-19,” reads the state’s guidance.

Under that guidance, the money must go to costs incurred since March 13 in response to the pandemic. Specifically, the department released the following allowable costs:

  • “Purchase of educational technology, including hardware, software and connectivity
  • Purchase of sanitization and cleaning supplies
  • Mental health supports
  • Plan and implement activities related to summer learning and supplemental after-school programs, including providing online learning during the summer months to address the needs of student subgroups
  • Planning and coordinating the distribution of meals to eligible students
  • Provide principals and other school leaders with the resources necessary to address the needs of their individual schools
  • Activities to address the unique needs of student subgroups.”

Q: How much will each district get?

A: Specific amounts have not been set, but it will be proportional to how much each district receives in federal Title I aid for disadvantaged students.

As of April 16:

Not surprisingly, the way New Jersey evaluates its public school teachers is getting its own readjustment in this new age of remote instruction under the CODIV-19 pandemic.

The state Department of Education yesterday posted the latest revisions to the evaluation procedures mandated by the state, saying the process would be truncated to give the greatest flexibility for all educators, including those needing the required evaluations to proceed.

“The guiding principle is that the 2019-20 evaluation cycle was significantly disrupted, and the resulting lack of evidence for any required component should not negatively impact the overall integrity of an educator’s [rating],” the department wrote.

Q: How will tenured teachers and administrators in “good standing” be evaluated?

A: “All tenured teachers, principals, assistant principals, vice principals and other certificated staff in good standing (defined as those whose previous year’s rating was Highly Effective or Effective) will be marked Not Evaluated (NE) for their summative rating, for local and state reporting purposes.”

Q: What is the process for teachers and administrators requiring additional ratings for either certification or other requirements?

A: “Educators with a provisional [first-year] certification will earn a summative rating based on those observations completed by the date of each school district’s March 2020 closure and scored using the appropriate educator practice instrument.”

“There must be a minimum of two observations.”

“Educators with a provisional certification must receive a summary conference. This conference should be conducted remotely via a video conference if possible.”

Q: What can non-tenured teachers, principals, assistant and vice principals, and other certificated staff expect?

A: “Non-tenured educators will earn a summative rating based only on observations completed by the date of each school district’s March 2020 closure.”

“There must be a minimum of two observations.”

“Non-tenured educators must receive a summary conference. This should be conducted remotely via a video conference if possible.”

Q: What will the evaluation process be for teachers, principals, assistant and vice principals and other certificated staff currently on corrective action plans (CAP) for being rated less than “effective” the previous year?

A: “Chief School Administrators have the discretion to produce a summative rating for an educator currently on a CAP who had been progressing toward an Effective or Highly Effective rating (as shown by observation scores issued up to this point in the year) and who will be moved back into good standing by the issuance of a summative rating.”

“All other educators on a CAP will receive a Not Evaluated (NE) rating for the 2019-2020 school year.”

“Coaching should continue for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.”

“The current CAP will be in place for the start of the 2020-2021 school year.”

“At the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the educator and supervisor should collaboratively review the CAP and amend it to reflect the educator’s assignment and context.”

As of March 27:

For New Jersey’s schools, the changes imposed by the coronavirus pandemic are looking increasingly as if they’re here for the long haul.

Gov. Phil Murphy announced yesterday that any decision about how long New Jersey’s schools will remain closed and rely on remote learning will not be made until at least April 17, a month after his initial executive order to shutter schools.

The uncertainty has left open a host of questions about how schools will proceed — questions the state Department of Education has tried to answer in ongoing guidance.

The following are excerpts from that guidance, starting with the latest additions to the department’s FAQs.

It includes guidance about the latest graduation requirements for the class of 2020 after Murphy announced this week that state testing will be suspended. About 10% of students not passing those tests still would require a “portfolio appeals” process to graduate, a process now uncertain. There are also updates for teacher candidates suddenly put on hold.

Q: How can students, who must participate in the portfolio appeals process, meet their graduation assessment requirement if schools are closed?

A: “Portfolio appeals will continue to be reviewed on an ongoing basis. The NJDOE will extend the submission deadline of May 8, 2020, which is the district-submission deadline, to ensure the NJDOE will issue an approval in time for student participation in graduation ceremonies. The NJDOE is developing a process to electronically submit portfolio appeals and will provide additional information as soon as possible.”

“The NJDOE is encouraging districts and schools to develop a process to make Constructed Response Tasks (CRTs) available to students remotely. Some potential options include:

Post CRTs on district/school website.

Create a process and “drop box” for the electronic return to the district/school of completed CRTs.

Students without access to the internet can have CRTs mailed to them, complete them at home, and bring them for submission when school reopens.”

Q: Can I still apply for my educator certification?

A: “The online Teacher Certification Information System (TCIS) is available but with limited capacity. Candidates can complete an application, a notarized oath of allegiance and pay any fees online. The accompanying documents must still be submitted via mail to the Office of Educator Certification. There will be some delays in uploading the documents into TCIS and the NJDOE staff apologizes for this inconvenience.”

As of March 19:

The state Department of Education has been issuing guidance to New Jersey’s public schools for the past week about dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Included is a 15-page FAQ, frequently asked questions that range from the broad (what students must be served?) to the specific — addressing public meetings, for example.

The following are excerpts from the questions and answers included in the full FAQ, as well as other guidance. NJ Spotlight will update this document as more guidance is provided.

Q: How will districts ensure student attendance during the closures and the implementation of remote instruction?

A: “Any day on which all students impacted by a public health-related closure have access to home instruction services provided consistent with the guidance in this memo will count as (an instructional day) … Because such instruction is being provided, all students can be recorded as present for applicable days unless the district knowingly determines a student was not participating in any such instruction during health-related school closures.”

Q: What students must receive instruction?

A: “All students served by the district must be addressed in the plan, including students in preschool if the district has state-funded preschool and/or if the district services preschoolers with disabilities. The plans developed must include age-appropriate strategies and materials to meet the needs of all students. Districts offering preschool should remember to include contracted providers — private preschool providers and Head Start providers — in their planning activities. Each district plan must also include developmentally appropriate strategies and materials to meet the needs of all students with disabilities including those educated in out-of-district placements. Districts are encouraged to consult with the school in which the student is placed to provide continuity of instruction to the maximum extent practicable.”

Q: How might a district be able to administer home instruction remotely if families in our community do not have a device or Internet connectivity?

A: “Equitable access to learning is a critical consideration for any plan and will require that a district understands the limitations each student faces. Districts should consider collecting information on which students have access to a device, how that device is or is not shared, and what access each student has to a network. Schools and districts should take care to collect this information in a manner that avoids stigmatization of any students with varying degrees of access to technology and Internet service at home.”

“Instructional strategies should be varied and designed to meet the needs of the students. Districts should consider various solutions, such as utilizing partnerships with local community-based organizations and businesses, developing worksheets for instruction, or uploading of lessons electronically.”

“Accommodations and multiple means of conducting assignments should be considered for students with disabilities. If students with disabilities do not have access to internet connectivity to participate in remote or online home instruction, the IEP team will need to determine what compensatory instruction a student may require when their school district reopens.”

Q: How should students with disabilities, including students in special class programs, medically fragile students, students with one-to-one paraprofessionals and students receiving related services, be accommodated in the plan?

A: “Home instruction/services shall be consistent with the student’s Individualized Education Plan Program (IEP) to the most appropriate extent possible. Districts should talk to parents, who are key members of the IEP team, and help them consider how they may best ensure that students with disabilities have the necessary supports, including medical supports, in place during a public health-related school closure.”

Federal guidance on serving students with disabilities is available online.

Q: How should districts provide meals to students who receive free and reduced-price lunch during a closure?

A: “All boards of education must develop a school health-related closure-preparedness plan to provide home instruction in the event of such a closure. Each preparedness plan should address the provision of school nutrition benefits or services for eligible students.”

Q: How do COVID-19-related school closures affect statewide testing for school year 2019-2020?

A: “The NJDOE is communicating with the United States Department of Education (ED), other states in similar situations and school districts to develop guidance for long-term testing interruptions. We are currently evaluating all flexibilities and potential schedule changes and will provide guidance as school-reopening dates are confirmed.”

Federal guidance as it has been established thus far is available online.

Q: What options are available to boards of education to conduct business while minimizing the general public’s exposure during this period?

A: “School boards will likely need to hold public meetings to conduct business on various matters, such as developing a budget for the upcoming school year. In accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), public meetings may be held in person or by means of communications equipment, including streaming services and other online meeting platforms. All meetings, including those held using communications equipment, must be noticed in a manner consistent with the requirement of the OPMA, unless the meeting is for emergent circumstances and held in a manner consistent with the requirements set forth at N.J.S.A. 10:4-9(b).”

“Boards of education are reminded that they are required to provide a means of public comment even if a meeting is held remotely. Further, if a board of education currently records the audio or video of its meetings, we recommend that it continue to record a remote meeting.”