New Jersey’s 2,500 public schools and 1.4 million students are in limbo when it comes to how this school year will proceed and how it will end. But yesterday, Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration answered at least a few of the questions.
In a sweeping executive order, Murphy announced in his daily briefing that he had extended the current closure indefinitely — hinting that a firmer decision is still at least a week away. But he also announced an end to limbo for roughly 13,000 high school seniors, waiving all state testing requirements for those hoping to graduate with a diploma this June.
Murphy had already suspended the testing for the spring, but his order said any final hurdles — including a last-resort portfolio appeal — would be removed and graduation assured as long as the students met local requirements.
“They will no longer need to submit an appeal in order to graduate,” Murphy said.
The decision won quick plaudits from advocates who had worried in the early days of the pandemic that these students would be unintentionally harmed.
“The reduced availability of alternatives and the difficulty of implementing the portfolio with schools closed made enforcing the testing requirement untenable,” said Stan Karp, director of secondary reform for the Education Law Center.
“The governor’s decision provides needed relief for 13,000 seniors who were on track to graduate in June and for their schools. It will allow them to concentrate on the many challenges they face in light of the pandemic.”
Nixes testing for teacher evaluation
Murphy’s orders also specifically eliminated the use of testing for evaluating teachers, although it was already minimal, and gave a few local districts flexibility in pushing back school board and budget votes from April to May 12.
Nonetheless, the governor and state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet at the daily briefing didn’t mince words that challenges and uncertainties remain, including around the large numbers of students without the technology for remote instruction.
By the state’s own survey, more than 100,000 students don’t have either the internet connectivity or the one-on-one devices needed for distance learning. Paper-and-pencil tools are still available, but officials conceded the more technology the better.
“Online learning is just one tool,” Repollet said. “Continuous instruction can come in many ways.”
The commissioner pushed to give an upbeat appraisal, saying educators statewide had made remarkable strides in a few weeks. “These extraordinary circumstances call on all of us … to reach for new heights of innovation, collaboration and mutual support,” he said.
“We have been at this 20 days,” the commissioner said.
How long in lockdown?
Still, the basic question remains about how long schools would be in lockdown and relying on remote instruction. Murphy has said that decision wouldn’t come before April 17, a month from his initial order, but he yesterday offered little encouragement that schools would be back to normal anytime soon.
When specifically asked whether families should plan for the late-spring graduation season, for example, the governor said he wouldn’t bet on it.
“I’m not trying to be flippant, but I wouldn’t put any nonrefundable checks down on the (graduation) celebrations right now,” Murphy said. “It’s hard to say otherwise. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear I am not.”