Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday that New Jersey’s schools will reopen in the fall, but what that exactly means will be left to local districts and their communities to decide.
That was the basic message in the Murphy administration’s long-awaited guidance provided to school districts, an announcement rife with words like “flexibility” and “discretion” but shy on actual mandates beyond familiar public health ones.
And even those were not hard and fast, with schools required to have social distancing, for instance, but able to rely on face masks where distancing is not possible. Unlike restaurants and other indoor venues, there were no capacity limits.
In-person instruction will be required, in an other example, but only “in some capacity,” and there was more talk of a combination of remote and live instruction. In fact, families and teachers wishing to stay away from schools altogether will be fully permitted to do so, without penalty.
All in all, the new guidance, filling more than 100 pages of suggestions and resources, raises many questions. Here are a few takeaways, with surely plenty more to come:
Schools ‘reopening’ — but in many different ways
However one defines it, New Jersey’s schools will be opening their doors again in the fall under the guidance set by the state. That will mean at least some students for at least some hours in the day or week will be going to a brick-and-mortar school and seeing a live teacher.
But how — and how often — that happens will be determined district by district, with each required to submit a plan to the state Department of Education and be ready to announce to families by early August.
Murphy and his outgoing education commissioner, Lamont Repollet, presented the guidelines on Friday, and both men repeatedly said they would provide local districts the “flexibility” to try a host of combinations, as long as they follow basic health requirements.
“Hybrid” was another frequently used word by the two in their announcement, meaning a mix of in-person and remote learning through creative scheduling that would have some students in school on given days and weeks and others taking their instruction from home. But again, it would be up to the districts how to do that.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach we can take,” Murphy said Friday.
“Our state has 577 public school districts, not to mention our charter and renaissance schools, nonpublic and parochial schools, and other specialized places of learning. We must take into account the many geographic, demographic, and economic differences which exist among our schools and education communities — which can each vary greatly even among neighbors.”
The technology gap remains
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closing of schools in mid-March, there has been a widespread recognition that remote learning leaves wide disparities in access and opportunity for students.
Some districts have the tools and expertise to handle remote learning; some, less so. Some students have the devices at home and the required connectivity; others don’t. In fact, the state’s surveys to date show that as many as 100,000 students are without the technology needed — roughly one in 10 in the state.
The state has yet to release updated numbers, but whatever it is, the new guidance does little to address that technology gap beyond saying districts should make it a priority to close.
When asked why not require the needed technology for every student, Murphy said that was a step the state was not ready to take. He didn’t need to say so, but such a mandate would likely come with the requirement that the state also pay for it.
“In a perfect world we would [require], but we are not in a perfect world right now,” he said. “We have had expenses that have skyrocketed in this crisis; we have revenues that have literally fallen off the cliff.”
Tough financial times ahead
Even without all the additional requirements and costs to come, this was going to be a tough year for districts just to maintain the status quo. Now, it will be even harder.
Murphy had first proposed back in February a $335 million increase in funding for schools, but that was essentially thrown out the window with the pandemic. Instead, the governor released a supplemental budget in May that removed the increase and called for level funding in the total amount of state aid to schools for the time being, with the hint there could yet be further reductions.
Even with level funding, that would likely mean cuts or efficiencies in many districts that face increasing costs in just normal times. And these are hardly normal times, with schools now charged with providing for additional safeguards, technology, transportation and other COVID-related needs.
Murphy on Friday said the federal government will need to provide help, without a question. Like so much else involved in this process, whether it will be enough is an open question.
Read “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan” here.