In a whirlwind of developments for New Jersey’s schools, Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday relented to pressure and announced his administration would allow for remote-only opening of schools that can’t meet safety guidelines.
It was a compromise between his previous order that schools offer at least some in-person instruction and the growing chorus from districts and educators that all schools open remotely while the pandemic still is ongoing.
Those tensions were hardly assuaged by the announcement. The state’s powerful teachers union continued to press for all schools be on remote at the start of the school year, including in an op-ed from its president in NJ Spotlight.
Murphy’s order also exposed further the disparities likely to be heightened in the coming months, with few better examples than the two districts he invited to his media briefing on Wednesday.
A tale of two districts
One invited guest was East Brunswick, where schools will be a mix of in-person and virtual learning, a so-called hybrid model that will require intricate scheduling among different cohorts of students.
The plan includes everything from plexiglass barriers in high-traffic areas and entrances to carefully coordinated class schedules for siblings to ease families’ child care issues.
“We are pleased to say we will be able to meet the health and safety standards,” said Victor Valesky, East Brunswick’s superintendent. “While the full in-class instruction is not possible, we are confident the hybrid plan we are offering will ensure that all students receive a high-quality education.”
Across the table, the Willingboro school superintendent offered an equally optimistic outlook but also acknowledged that much was unresolved in her working-class district, with her schools slated to go all-virtual until at least November.
Superintendent Neely Hackett said there were just too many questions about the condition — and especially the ventilation — of her buildings for them to open in September, not to mention the 8,000 face masks they will need to distribute to students and staff every month, two per individual.
Hackett said she was committed to providing an education that met the same high-quality standards as a district like East Brunswick, but also said she was waiting for computers for her students and training for her teachers.
Not ready to go hybrid
“We are currently waiting delivery of devices,” she said of the computers. “And we believe we need additional time in training our staff on the complexities of hybrid learning.”
She summed it up nicely: “The 2020-21 school year will not be normal in any sense of the word.”
Such is the dilemma that the state’s schools face as they encounter a no-win situation of opening in-person or virtually. The former brings students back together and in front of their teachers, but opens them all to health risks. The latter is less risky in terms of health, but last spring’s experiment in all-remote instruction was hardly a universal success.
Murphy tried to balance those concerns in his latest decision, and ended up resting much of it on the desire to let districts make their own decision.
When asked how families and educators should feel when some districts are deemed safe and others not, he said that is the home-rule reality of New Jersey and its more than 500 distinct school districts.
“We have no two districts that are alike,” he said. “Some may be broadly similar, but each one has its own uniqueness. Look at East Brunswick and Willingboro, two great communities with different realities.”
NJEA steps away from Murphy
Murphy nonetheless faces a formidable opponent to his plans in the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union of 200,000 members that up to now has been among his most loyal allies.
The union on Tuesday issued a joint statement with the state’s two largest administrator groups that called for schools to remain closed. On Wednesday, it stepped up its campaign in an NJ Spotlight op-ed from the NJEA president, Marie Blistan.
“There is simply no level of planning we can do in the next four weeks, and no amount of caution and care we can practice in September, that will guarantee the safety of students and staff,” Blistan wrote.
In addition, local unions from Essex to Atlantic counties have called for remote-only openings, and with the statewide organization’s vaunted support, districts will be hard-pressed to counter that.
There is surely more to come in this developing story. Murphy said his administration will allow districts to resubmit their plans for reopening now that remote-only instruction is an option, potentially restarting the process for districts across the state.
And his Department of Health will be releasing Thursday new guidance that will allow schools to measure the health risks in their communities — but also potentially put up new guidelines for different parties involved in the debate to respond to.
Among other things, the guidance will address the use of testing for COVID-19, isolation strategies for those with symptoms and how long those who test positive must be excluded from in-person lessons, officials said.
State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said the department will also be adding COVID-19 information to its statewide communicable disease surveillance system, which has long been used to track the spread of flu and similar outbreaks. The system divides the state in six regions and includes a color-coded risk map that illustrates the transmission risk in that area based on the number of new cases, the recent positivity rate and reports of symptomatic individuals.
At the end of a tumultuous day, Murphy near the close of his briefing was asked if still more changes in his guidance could be instituted in the coming weeks as the numbers and conditions change.
“Yes, sadly,” he answered. “The pandemic dictates the terms, not us mere mortals.”