NJ Lawmakers Plan Task Force, Impact of COVID-19 on Education

Proponents look to cast wide net, want stakeholders to include administrators, teachers, families of students — even school nurses
Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex)
Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex)

Questions are being raised about how the coronavirus pandemic will change New Jersey public education, and a host of voices are clamoring to be part of that conversation.

Yesterday, state Senate leaders joined the group and announced they would create a task force of stakeholders to monitor how the state’s 2,500 public schools are serving their 1.4 million students in this uncertain time.

One of the first of what is likely to be many legislative task forces to come, this one would be made up of legislative leaders from both parties, as well as representatives of districts, teachers, families and others, according to its proponents.

The group would look at both the current challenges, as well as more lasting reforms that may be needed once the current crisis ends.

“The coronavirus crisis is having an impact on all aspects of our lives, including our schools, educators, students and their families,” said state Senate President Steve Sweeney in the midday announcement.

“We need to do all we can to protect the health and safety of students, teachers and staff at the same time we work to provide a quality education. There are a wide array of challenges that confront us now and there will be other consequences that will likely emerge in the near future.”

A work in progress

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chair of the Senate’s education committee, said in an interview afterward that the logistics and membership were still to be worked out, but it would include a range of stakeholder groups, from teachers unions to administrator associations to those representing families and advocates as well.

“I want school nurses to be part of this, too,” she said. “They are really important.”

Over what she envisioned as a course of meetings, Ruiz said there were some tough questions to discuss, including about estimates that sizable numbers of New Jersey students still do not have the technology to tap into daily lessons.  A department survey said as many as 100,000 students or more are without the necessary connectivity or devices.

“Why in this day and age do we not have every child connected to the internet?” Ruiz said. “It’s our responsibility to connect them.”

Gov. Phil Murphy yesterday in his daily briefing on the COVID-19 crisis was asked about the new task force, and said he hadn’t been informed of the group but welcomed the input.

“We welcome any good ideas from other branches of government or other parts of the state,” he said. “If they have some ideas that come out of this, we welcome them. This is an experiment we have never been through before.”

Asked his assessment of how the state’s public education system was faring so far, after three weeks of school closures and universal remote instruction, the governor acknowledged it wasn’t perfect but also sought to play the role of cheerleader.

Comparable with other states

“You can never say you are batting 1.000,” Murphy said. “We have heard about lack of devices, challenges of remote learning … I would say we are doing about as good a job as any American state.

“We entered this with among the strongest systems in America,” he said. “That’s a good place to start.”

On a separate education matter, the governor was asked about the change of the state’s budget cycle due to the emergency, and whether school districts should expect roughly the same levels of state aid for the next school year.

Not surprisingly, the governor said that remained a big question mark, especially with the federal stimulus also still fluid. He wouldn’t commit one way or the other, but he said the state’s expenses were exploding.

“The impact on the state budget is significant, there is no other way to put it,” he said. “It is still too early to tell the impact on specifics like school aid. Please bear with us on that.”

“We will need distinct (federal) cash to the state, let me emphasize that,” Murphy continued. “We are getting crushed right now, there is no other way to put it.”