As the new school year approaches, more and more students and teachers, school administrators and staff — and their families — are wondering what the first day of school will look like.
Determining the best way to maintain the health and safety of our school communities has, for months, been at the forefront of our administration’s attention. The ability of our education system — a gem for our state and among the very best in the nation — to safely return after the summer vacation for instruction has been one of our very highest priorities.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit our state — and increasingly, over the past six months — I have personally had scores of consultations, discussions, and deliberations, with educators, parents, national experts, and countless other stakeholders. And just as importantly, not only have I spoken with them, I have listened closely.
While I have heard many differing perspectives, unique challenges, and concerns, it is unmistakable that we are all on a shared mission: keeping people safe and healthy, and making sure our kids are learning. This has never changed. Our commitment to helping our school districts and their communities adapt to these unprecedented challenges has not changed, either. Nor has our focus on protecting students, families and educators.
We have worked alongside our districts to ensure they have the flexibility to meet their unique needs. There is no one size-fits-all plan for this very difficult situation. The simple fact that New Jersey is home to nearly 600 public school districts — more districts than we have municipalities — plus charter and Renaissance schools, non-public and parochial schools, and other specialized places of learning proves this point.
All-remote option announced several weeks ago
As the summer has progressed, we have made it clear that we will act in accordance with the latest science, as well as the latest numbers that we are seeing across our state. This is why, several weeks ago, we made the announcement that parents and guardians would have the option to choose all-remote learning for their student.
And, that willingness to adjust based on the on-the-ground reality of this pandemic is the reason why, when I signed the executive order officially clearing both our pre-K-through-12 schools to reopen for the upcoming academic year, it came with even more significant flexibility — the ability to open the school year in an all-remote fashion if benchmark health and safety protocols could not be met.
The Department of Education has put forward strong guidelines that put a premium on the health and safety of students and staff, while allowing in-person instruction to resume. However, for some districts, there are legitimate and documentable reasons why some of these core health and safety standards cannot be met on Day One. For these districts, we are reaffirming our commitment to provide the flexibility to do what is best for their school community.
Both public and non-public schools must certify to the Department of Education that they are able to meet the health and safety standards necessary to resume in-person instruction. Districts that cannot meet all the health and safety standards for safe in-person instruction will begin their school year with their students learning remotely. Public school districts will need to spell out their plans for satisfying these unmet standards, and a date by which they anticipate the ability to resume in-person instruction.
‘Fully committed to getting this right’
We know the first day of school is not going to be like any other in our history, and we are fully committed to getting this right for students, our educators, our districts, and every family, so that anyone who enters one of our schools in the morning goes safely home after the final bell.
And, when our schools open in September, they must be ready to provide to all students the high-quality education that is a hallmark of New Jersey.
Each school faces its own unique challenges, serves a unique community, and has its own unique character.
New Jersey’s education system has long been rooted in local control and decision-making, based on local input. I would not ask the students and parents in one community to decide what’s best for the schools next door — or vice versa. And so for the past six weeks, we have relied upon the work of local educational communities to determine the best way for their schools to reopen.
You have heard me say it before, but it bears repeating — we will only get through this pandemic as one New Jersey family. And, to move through this challenging school year without letting students fall behind on their learning, we will need to work together. We will need to listen to the concerns of others and raise important questions. We will need to be creative and flexible.
In short, we will need to do all the things we teach our kids in school.