On Friday, a statewide school closure was an “inevitability.” On Saturday, “imminent.” And Sunday, one more day.
In the last few days, New Jersey’s public schools have all but shut down on their own and announced individually that they will move to online and distance learning due to the COVID-19 emergency — maybe for weeks, if not months.
But the Murphy administration has taken a deliberative and, some might argue, herky-jerky path to make it official. That is expected to come today, as Gov. Phil Murphy yesterday said there was a “99 percent certainty” that he’d call for statewide closure this afternoon.
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What’s taking so long? According to the latest data posted last night, more than 600 districts have already made plans for closure, short- and long-term. Several have said it will likely be at least a month before their doors open again, with elaborate plans for how classes will be taught in the meantime.
But with Murphy’s and other officials’ comments over the last three days and the reality of overseeing more than 600 districts and charter schools, the difficulty and complexity of making such a statewide declaration has become apparent.
“Why tomorrow and not today?” Murphy said yesterday in the latest of the daily state press briefings. “Our folks have literally been working 24 hours a day, and this has lots of unintended consequences we have to be sure to get out ahead of.”
Subsidized meals, technology, child care challenges
He listed a number of challenges to be surmounted: feeding 210,000 students whose food comes through their schools, the 259,000 students without the necessary technology at home, and significant child care challenges in every community, if not every family.
The administration is erring on the side of caution, the governor said. “I don’t want to just get a sugar high and just close the schools, which we will do,” Murphy said.
But the political pressure, if not educational pressure, is mounting.
“If school closure is inevitable, we should do it now,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney in an email to NJ Spotlight last night. “Of course we need to continue to support the kids that need it, but why allow for additional days for the virus to spread?
“We can’t be too cautious on this and the possibility of 100 kids taking the coronavirus home to vulnerable parents and grandparents is terrifying, especially in urban areas where people are living in closer quarters,” Sweeney wrote. “We should take this first step now and work together to make sure all students get the support and nutrition they need once they are maintaining a safe social distance.”
The challenge ahead for New Jersey’s public schools is uncharted, to be sure, with the questions voluminous. The state has tried to address some of them in a raft of guidance released in the last week, including a list of “frequency asked questions” put out Friday.
Will students with special needs be served? Yes, or at least that’s what is required. The state’s guidance is to be sure that child study teams and others be involved in making necessary accommodations, it read.
How will students eligible for subsidized meals be served? There will be a plan for that, too.
But the guidance only goes so far, and local school leaders are mostly laying their own paths.
Sending mixed signals
Some district officials commended the state for its leadership in pressing them to come up with explicit plans a week ago, with others saying it’s tough to plan when the state sends mixed signals.
“On Friday, we believed all schools would be closed,” wrote Freehold Regional Superintendent Charles Sampson in an email last night. “When it was apparent that would not occur, many who had not previously closed decided to close their schools regardless of current guidance.
“Today there is a collective surprise they have not been closed to this point, but also a clear indication from the Governor that such closures are forthcoming, and I am hopeful that occurs soon,” he said.
“We are all managing as effectively as possible and erring on the side of safety for our students and faculty and larger school communities.”
‘Giving us the green light’
A nearby superintendent said he was at least thankful for the week to put a plan in place, including for providing students with their daily breakfast and lunch.
“I think the NJDOE can be commended for giving us the green light early to begin planning when they did,” wrote Rocco Tomazic, superintendent of Freehold Borough schools, an elementary school district that feeds into Freehold Regional.
“None of us had plans for this, because we all knew it was not an option for running school and getting credit,” he wrote. “Having one week to plan allowed us to actually develop a credible plan. Without that week of planning — which was non-stop — I don’t know how we would have been ready.”
Still, while other states and cities are announcing widespread school closures — Vermont and New York City did so just last night — the Murphy administration has been pulling its punches before making statewide mandates when it comes to schools.
In a brief interview with NJ Spotlight, state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said on Friday that the administration is trying to work closely with local districts and not dictate their actions.
When asked whether the closure could be for weeks or months, Repollet responded, somewhat vaguely: “It actually varies, based on the information we’re collecting. . . We expect local district leaders to make informed decisions and consult with their health care officials and follow our guidelines.”
More is to come today, and it is expected to be sweeping.
Authority over private schools
Murphy yesterday also shed new light on whether the state would move on private schools, as well. After on Saturday saying the state does not have the authority over private schools, he said yesterday that the state “does have that authority. And assuming we go forward tomorrow on a general matter [of public schools], we will exercise it.”
In a message he wanted to send to all sectors of public life, Murphy emphasized there is no overstatement of the need to change habits and practices, and to do so now:
“It is clear we are far too much in a business-as-usual mode. And that has got to change. We have got to shake this state, and we will do everything we can in the next 24 hours.”