Op-Ed: Let’s Not Kid Ourselves About What Reopened Schools Will Look Like

John Kellmayer | July 24, 2020 | Opinion
For the foreseeable future, the majority of instruction in most New Jersey districts will continue to be online, and we need to plan accordingly
John Kellmayer

School starts in weeks.

In mid-April, I wrote an Op-Ed that appeared in NJ Spotlight, arguing that New Jersey schools should not reopen in the spring because of the pandemic. In late May, David M. Aderhold, superintendent of the West Windsor – Plainsboro Regional School District and president of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, published an Op-Ed on these same pages: “As We Think About Reopening Schools in the Fall, 91 Questions to Start With.”

I was a New Jersey superintendent for 17 years. I understand how difficult — perhaps impossible — it will be for school boards and administrators to answer many of the questions posed by David Aderhold in his article. Upon retirement as superintendent, I began to teach as an adjunct or serve as a dissertation chair in three online doctoral programs in organizational leadership and one in-person program at New Jersey’s Stockton University, which has now gone online due to the pandemic. The other three universities are located in Florida, Arizona and Texas. Many of my students are superintendents, principals or assistant principals, and I am in regular communication with them through Zoom or other means. The school administrators I teach live in 10 states and the District of Columbia.

Reopening plans across the country are fairly similar and call for some combination of in-person and online learning, split or staggered scheduling, social distancing, wearing masks, extensive deep cleaning and so forth. But I wanted to know more, so I sent David Aderhold’s article to my school administrator students across the country and invited them to comment.

An obstacle for school administrators

Without exception, every one of my students who commented — the ones who will be responsible for implementing state guidelines on reopening schools in the fall — described their state’s plans to reopen as confusing, incomplete, constantly changing, inadequately funded, chaotic, and (in some aspects) extremely difficult or impossible to implement.

One assistant principal in Florida told me he feared chaos on reopening, being unable to adequately staff classes because already several teachers have told him that they will not return if they have to teach in person, and the impossibility of finding substitute teachers. Another in Texas explained that the district’s plans for reopening are changing every week and expressed concern about how prepared some teachers will be when they’re required to teach both in person and online. A third administrator told me he feared that his school could become like a cruise ship on steroids.

The risks of keeping kids home

I understand all the arguments in favor of reopening New Jersey schools in the fall. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University and a leading expert on COVID-19, remarked, “The idea of keeping kids at home, and having parents work at home, until we get a vaccine, it seems to me that there are harms that kids are experiencing that we are not accounting for.”

There are indeed. It has been estimated that as many as 7 million children have been stuck at home with no internet and no access to online classes, regardless of the quality of these classes. Children from low-income families are falling even farther behind classmates who live in homes of more fortunate circumstances. The level of disruption to the lives of parents who have had to provide child care and assist with online learning is practically incalculable.

The risks of reopening

On the other hand, some public health experts believe there is a significant risk in   reopening schools. Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, says that children could serve as vectors to spread the disease: “I haven’t seen enough evidence to convince me that children are less involved in the transmission of covid-19,” he said.

The state Department of Education has provided flexibility in its guidelines for reopening New Jersey’s 577 public school districts in the fall. Many parents and students are hopeful that schools will reopen and that some sense of normalcy will return, maybe even fall sports, dances and after-school clubs.

Sadly, that’s not going to happen. Most schools are likely to be open, but on a very limited basis; for example, the provision of one-on-one or small group instruction for students who receive special education services. Periodic rolling school closures even for the limited services that will be offered are likely.

Assuming that schools  do reopen, all stakeholders — especially parents and their children — need to accept and plan accordingly for the harsh reality that for the foreseeable future in most New Jersey districts, the majority of instruction that will be offered will continue to be online. As Dr. Anthony Fauci has remarked many times, the virus is driving everything —including education in New Jersey schools.