Push Stalls for Law Making New Jersey Schools Remote-Only

Lawmakers had backed the bill to halt plans for in-person learning in September, but Gov. Phil Murphy switched gears
Credit: (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
File photo: July 28, 2020 in Marietta, Georgia, teacher Aimee Rodriguez Webb works in her dining room, which she has turned into a virtual classroom.

When a bill was first posted earlier this month to start all public schools remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several legislative leaders lined up in support — and flexed their muscle to show that it wasn’t just the governor calling the shots.

But as Gov. Phil Murphy has adjusted his mandates for schools and more and more districts appear to be headed to a remote-only opening anyway, the legislation has seen little action since — with now only a couple of weeks to go before the planned start of the school year.

State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) was a chief sponsor of the bill that would have delayed in-person learning, perhaps for a month or more.

But despite some early fanfare, that bill has yet to be heard in the Assembly Education Committee, and now a companion bill in the Senate has been pulled from consideration before that chamber’s education panel for Thursday.

“We’re running out of time,” Jasey said yesterday.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate committee and among the most critical of the Murphy administration’s planning, sounded resigned that major legislative steps were unlikely at this point. She said the companion bill had been withdrawn for Thursday by its primary sponsor, state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex).

“I think it has gotten too close to September to do anything else at this point,” Ruiz said in an interview. “It will only add to the confusion.”

Sen. Greenstein: Governor ‘getting more flexible’

Greenstein last evening said she had struggled with whether to pull the bill, but said Murphy’s new flexibility gave her some comfort.

“Is this a good idea at this time with the governor getting more flexible?” Greenstein said in an interview. “I just didn’t think this was positive to do at this time. There is movement.”

Still, Greenstein said she was only pulling the bill from consideration on Thursday, not altogether. “We may still want to do something, depending on what happens,” she said.

Jasey, a member of the Education Committee and also chair of the Higher Education Committee, said she still sees the need for her bill. It would mandate that schools remain closed to in-person instruction through September, except in the case of certain special-education services, a recent amendment.

She said even with Murphy’s move to allow districts to start with remote-only instruction, it shouldn’t be left to local districts to make that decision on a town-by-town basis. “The law would have given them coverage,” she said in an interview. “That was the intention.”

But there has been little political appetite to buck the governor so far, and Ruiz said that while she might support a delay herself, such a proposal was unlikely to become law.

“We can do all the legislation we want, but if it’s not going to be signed, it’s a futile exercise,” she said.

Readjusting the agenda

Ruiz said she would try to target efforts in the upper house on some specific issues. One planned bill will help teachers who now face their own child-care challenges, and another would provide funds to free up space in libraries and other local facilities to serve as “learning pods.”

“We’re trying to patch the holes where we can,” she said of the Legislature’s efforts.

The lack of movement from the Legislature comes at a time of frenetic planning for districts, now with the new remote-only wrinkle. More than 130 districts have indicated to the state Department of Education that they would seek a remote start, according to officials.

Now they will have to prove they need to, and the state is currently putting together the process for applying.

“Districts will have to demonstrate that they are unable to meet the health and safety standards for reopening,” said Mike Yaple, the department’s spokesman.

The process will also require districts to lay out a plan and timeframe for meeting those safety standards and opening to in-person learning — no easy task given the uncertainty of the pandemic, not to mention questions about state funding.

Yaple said a timetable for the application process itself was not available.