When the call came down from the state a week ago to prepare for what would be the coronavirus pandemic and the likelihood of widespread school closures, the North Brunswick superintendent looked to his bird-flu plan from 2011.
Superintendent Brian Zychowski had put together the plan following a directive from the state a year before to have emergency plans in place for a variety of circumstances, including pandemics.
Happily, the bird flu gave the Garden State a wide berth. And Zychowski’s plan ended up on the shelf. But last week he dusted it off, and it only needed a few tweaks before he submitted it to the state for approval.
OK for shutdown
As of last Thursday, his Middlesex County district of 11,000 students and 1,100 staff was approved to close. It is now entering a new normal of remote learning for the foreseeable future.
“We just updated a few things like distribution of food, and it was pretty ready to go,” said Zychowski yesterday.
A similar task faced more than 600 school districts across New Jersey as they prepared for the closings that were made official by Gov. Phil Murphy yesterday.
By state directive last week, they each had to submit plans that would lay out just how they would teach their students, while also providing necessary services including daily meals for those eligible.
As of yesterday, more than 90% of the plans had been approved, state officials said, and the delay of a final statewide closure to Wednesday was the time needed to approve the final 10%.
State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said he expected “100%” would be closed after today, including private schools. He noted he had reviewed a few of the plans himself to see if they needed to be adjusted. He said many stood out; a few needed some work. Some had been urgent, others less so, especially in the southern end of the state.
Some districts needed to catch up on closure
“Look at Salem County, where they had zero closures,” he said in an interview with NJ Spotlight following the daily press briefing on the crisis. “There were districts that needed to have plans, and others just coming on line.”
“We’ve had some great ones,” Repollet continued, speaking from some he’d read himself. “Elizabeth is one that we will be checking out tomorrow. Hamilton right down the street is doing phenomenal … They’ve thought about the details.”
The state’s “emergency preparedness checklist” provided to districts is sparse, at best, mostly making sure they’re considering major components — instruction, food security and health care. There is not much detail beyond that.
Repollet said it’s a mix of considerations from the state’s point of view, including the state’s Office of Emergency Management looking at the logistical details and his own county offices reviewing the instructional plans.
“Some are more detailed than others,” Repollet said of district plans. “Some have had larger staffs to flesh it out; some have had more time to prepare.”
Following up on district plans
Still, he stressed the state would be going out to ensure all the plans were being followed.
“We will be going to the districts to collect what evidence they have that the work is being done,” he said. “So, if we are talking about paper packets given to students, what are they doing with those? With the online piece, there is a lot you can gather quickly in terms of data, like who is signing in.”
Repollet acknowledged it is all somewhat of a moving target, with the immediate focus on making sure students who depend on schools for meals continue to have that service.
“Our goal as we prepare tomorrow to close down is to make sure those kids who need to eat can eat,” Repollet said. “That is the plan. Then we will be looking at how we provide instruction.”
In the end, the commissioner said he had high confidence in his school districts.
“I’m confident,” Repollet said. “We had Hurricane Sandy, Irene, the H1N1; we have had a lot of situations of schools and municipalities coming together … I’m very confident.”
Zychowski in North Brunswick agreed, saying the trauma of Sept. 11 and the Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings only added to New Jersey schools’ emergency training.
In his own district’s case, he said the key items are checked: School buses will deliver food to an estimated 2,500 students’ families, teachers have plans in place for distance learning and all students should have the needed technology.
“It is all so unprecedented,” he said. “Nobody was totally ready for this … But we’re growing every day.”