Commissioner Repollet, Top Staff Explore the New Normal for NJ Education

In this wide-ranging Q&A, the people closest to the radically transformed education landscape discuss remote learning, re-entry plans, the mood among teachers and much more
Credit: NJ Spotlight and NJTV News
Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet during virtual ‘School’s Out’ roundtable. (Social distancing made it impossible to take photographs in person.)

With New Jersey’s 2,500 public schools closed and 1.4 million students learning from home, the state Department of Education has a critical role to play, ensuring instruction is effective and students are not being left behind.

NJ Spotlight on Tuesday held its second “School’s Out” roundtable, exploring this new education landscape — where remote learning is the norm — with state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet and his top staff. Among the topics discussed, how their jobs have changed, as well as the state’s new guidance and regulations.

Appropriately enough, given the subject and the need for social distancing, the discussion was held online. (The full video has also been posted online.)

NJ Spotlight founding editor John Mooney moderated the discussion. The following are edited excerpts.

Question: Commissioner, tell us how your job changed that day in March when you knew schools would be closing and New Jersey would move to statewide home schooling?

Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet: The first thing we had to do is shift our mindset to understand that we’re no longer going to be in a brick-and-mortar school setting. And so we went from governing and overseeing to moreso facilitating the transition to online learning.

I think this paradigm shift allowed us as a Department of Education to be more practitioner style. This allowed us to start thinking like a practitioner, understanding what are the needs of our students.

Q: A big concern going into this was the schools’ roles in distributing food to eligible students? The state has overseen that. How has that proceeded?

Assistant Commissioner for Field Services AbdulSaleem Hasan: The office of school preparedness and emergency planning has visited over 200 distribution sites to date. We are aware in the state of New Jersey we have a lot of school districts, so one size doesn’t fit all. Some districts are doing a one-week drop-off for students to pick up, some twice a week.

A lot of school districts are working with local churches and local civic organizations to make sure that we’re taking care of students out in the community.

Q: Another big issue has been about equity with the technology capabilities of both schools, but also of families. By the state’s own count, as many as 100,000 students or more are without the connectivity or the required devices. How do you get around that?

Assistant Commissioner for Academics and Performance Linda Eno: I just want to point back to what the commissioner said about this being a new paradigm for us. It’s a new paradigm for the department and a new paradigm for districts. We’ve never had a prolonged 100% remote distribution of learning across a state like this.

We started with a large-scale survey to understand exactly who didn’t have devices. The governor and the first lady have been heavily invested in ensuring that every student has access to a device. So once we understand what the numbers were like, I think public-private partnerships began. The first lady put full force behind bringing corporate dollars and distribution to it.

Hasan: We worked with community partnerships. Campbell Soup in Camden donated $400,000 in money for devices for Camden students. So we are continuing to get partners and the parties as you to work with us to acquire devices for school. [Editor’s note: The donation was from Campbell Soup, Camden Education Fund, and Townsend Press.]

Repollet: The questions we are always getting are about the challenges. We understand that when you create a new paradigm, a new alternative education, you’re going to have challenges. But what I would love … to come out, is that “wow,” in 20 days we put up a virtual school system in the state of New Jersey. Let’s look at the grit and perseverance that our educators and district leaders, whether it’s teachers, even our parents and our students, the fact that they have to change their entire lifestyle, an entire mindset.

We’re getting teachers that are probably working more and harder now than ever. But they want it because of a love for their students. There’s a love for their profession. And I think that’s not going noticed enough. Let’s talk about the fact that educators are using technology, which some of them may even have never had professional development on. So this is learning on the fly. I can equate this to flying a plane and gassing it at the same time. In New Jersey, the spotlight should be on our educators, because we’re creating a brand-new system. And this is only Day 20.

Q: Commissioner, you made some news today in announcing a couple of executive orders, including one that would waive all statewide assessments for graduation and also for teacher evaluation this year. Do you want to say more?

Repollet: There’s an intersection between policy, practice and performance, and today was an example of that intersection. We have always been in the business of educating students. But lately, education has been the business of education. I think now we’re getting back to the heart and soul, which is student learning. So when we take all those unwanted burdens and problems you have to do. Now we’re getting down to the core of what we need to do in regard to student learning.

Q: In waiving the requirement for assessments to graduate, including the portfolio review, what was your decision-making process on that?

Repollet: When you’re talking about a new system, there was no way that our students can actually meet with a teacher to be able to go with their work into a system one-on-one. And we’re talking about a group of students that may need additional help and support from school. The question was always, should students be penalized for that? No.

Eno: It was clear to all parties involved that waiving that was the right thing to do. So waiving this portfolio-assessment process for graduating seniors just takes one piece of getting to the graduation finish line off their plates. There are a lot of things students need to do in order to graduate here in New Jersey. And districts are navigating now the fulfillment of credit requirements and making sure that students have the requisite courses.

Districts have a lot of flexibility on some of those other graduation requirements, and we’ll be working with them and putting out additional guidance over the upcoming weeks to help them navigate that.

Q: What about those other requirements, including seat-time in specific classes?

Eno: We moved to operating under home instruction, which moves students away from seat-time as a measure of credits. So we now are requiring students to fulfill graduation course requirements that are freed up from actual seat-time requirements.

Q: One of the other announcements today was about teacher evaluation and the use of assessments. But that’s really a small portion of a teacher’s evaluation and it’s only for some teachers. How will teacher evaluation happen going forward?

Eno: It became very clear that measuring a student’s growth from the classroom to the remote environment was not going to be a reliable indicator of educator effectiveness. So that’s off the table.

As the commissioner said, he’s been afforded very broad authority to waive regulations, modify them in order to ensure that there is a system that works for everybody and is not overly burdensome. And he will be applying that to make sure that we are using observations that were not done remotely but used in the classroom when it is necessary to create a summary score for educators. So more to come on that, John.

I think we’re certainly taking a pause on a number of pieces of accountability. And we are committed to ensuring that nobody is injured by transition. As commissioner said, all our educators, administrators and teachers are doing a great job day in and day out, their home schooling as well as working remotely. These are unique and amazing times. And it is we are first and foremost committed to making sure that we do no harm with the policies we’ve put forth.

Q: Assistant Commissioner Hasan, what is your sense of the mood out there among districts?

Hasan: We’re meeting with the county superintendents on a regular basis. We’re getting a sense that some teachers are challenged by the online platform, and they’re working through that process. And we’re working with the various union organizations to make sure that we try to get information out as far as webinars, conversations or reference to professional development as well. This is all new to them. And just trying to get them into the ready mindset.

Q: Let me ask a fundamental question: Will schools be reopening before the end of the year?

Repollet: The governor mentioned today that we’re going to make that decision after April 17. He will never put our students in harm’s way. So I don’t expect for him to make a rash decision. I expect to make an informed decision based off the data.

Q: It’s obviously not going to happen anytime soon, at least not in the next few weeks. Does it get to a point where we’re in June and it is just not worth trying to bring them back for a couple of weeks?

Repollet: It regards the data that I’m getting actually from the Department of Health. That’s the most important piece, really, because that will drive and determine what we’re doing. For us, we would have to come up with a re-entry plan to provide some guidance on that. But right now, I’m not there yet, because we’re concerned with the quality of instruction that we give him right now.

Q: Are you starting to work on a re-entry plan?

Repollet: We have some thoughts about it, because I think we always try to stay one step ahead. And so we do understand that school is eventually going to reopen. And what is that going to look like? That’s why we’re collecting a lot of data. That’s why we’re doing a lot of analysis of the work that we’re doing right now so we can be able to inform us about how we’re going to support districts.

Q: How much notice are you going to give schools to reopen?

Repollet: That’s not my pay grade, but what I’ll do is that when the governor makes a decision, we will make sure that we can actually support districts and reopening their schools.

Q: Can a student be retained through all of this, kept in their same grade or can a family ask that their student be retained?

Repollet: Those are local conversations that can and should be happening. This is not business as usual. And we need to make sure that the services our students receive and the follow-up that they get is developmentally appropriate.

I think it will also come to the forefront in our re-entry plan, because we will need to determine where students are, when, how much they have.

Q: Let me ask you a money question. A bunch of people asked about state aid and budget issues. Any guidance yet, should districts count on the same amount of state aid that was announced back in February?

Repollet: That’s the number we have now. So I would just advise them to continue working with the county superintendent’s office. I would still work with the number, because that’s the number that we actually have.

Q: What about teacher candidates who are going through the final phases of their education, including student teaching that now can’t happen? What is your advice to them?

Eno: Guidance on that will be forthcoming. But I do want to say that the educator-preparation programs have done an excellent job ensuring that their candidates are engaged in the remote-learning process and that they are having opportunities to move forward. We are going to ensure that nobody that has made a significant investment that a student makes and an educator-preparation program and has fulfilled on all other graduation requirements is kept from walking out the door.

There are some tests that are difficult for them to access right now, and where there is the opportunity to be flexible and reduce burden, we will absolutely do that. And where we need to continue to hold to a compliance line, we will extend deadlines and make sure that there is a ramp to getting out of the learning mode and into the earning mode and then complete those requirements that are deemed necessary.

Q: Taking the long view for a minute, might this all change the landscape of education going forward? It’s maybe a little premature to be talking about the long, long term, but what is school is going to look like when we return in September?

Eno: I’m really optimistic. I am very optimistic about our ability as a state to return to school in a more blended fashion. I think that we are not only better equipped to help teach our students in a more relevant way. But I think we’re more equipped to communicate with each other and team with each other in more nimble ways. So I’m optimistic, John. I don’t see us going backwards. I see us taking this opportunity and allowing it to make us better and more nimble moving forward.

Repollet: This is one example now where you’re going to have probably majority your educators that will be familiar with online platforms to support their kids, whether they want traditional instruction. It’s not going to ever replace the brick and mortar. School provides an opportunity to be empowered. So I think it’s not going to change.

Q: One final tip or piece of advice to all the educators out there?

Eno: Stay strong. Put your own oxygen mask on first. You can’t help somebody else if you don’t stay well and take care of yourself. Make sure you get some fresh air every day. Do the things to keep your immune system strong and keep your spirits up. Whatever that takes for you, because you will be a better colleague, a better teacher, a better educator, a better friend and a better parent. If you do those things, we’re rooting for you.

Hasan: I would say, be patient. Be resolved in uncharted territory. This is what this is, all new to us all. We have only been in this for 20 days and we’ve been boots on the ground working together. So please be just be patient with your team. And district leaders, be patient with staff. This is all new.

Repollet: I’m actually going to end with a quote from Dr. King, I think it’s apropos right now. Dr. King talks about the measure of a man, or in this case an educator, is not where he stands in moments of convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. So we’re trying to see the character of our workforce based off these times, these challenging times.

Now, I want to say, as I salute you, because you have been our students’ rock. You have been teacher, parent, educator. I say, thank you very much on behalf of Governor Murphy and Department of Education. We truly see and appreciate the work that you’re doing. Thank you.