With the calendar having flipped into the hazy month of August, traditional thoughts of “Back to School” enter our collective consciousness as students, parents, and educators prepare for a return to fall learning. Yet, rising infection rates, new scientific data on the health impacts of COVID-19 on children, intractable congressional logjams on critically needed funding for school safety measures, and a lack of universal health and safety standards for all New Jersey schools threaten any heartfelt goal of safe school openings statewide.
This situation is certainly not from a lack of commitment, desire or effort. School leaders, principals, superintendents, and teachers have spent countless stressful hours attempting to plan for the unplannable — a safe school reopening amid complex uncertainties in staffing, supply chain delays in personal protective equipment (PPE) and other necessary equipment, the changing desires of parents, and a virus that seemingly changes course on a daily basis.
Ambiguous health and safety ‘guidelines’
The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association (NJPSA) has consistently raised concerns about the lack of universal, mandatory state health requirements for all schools in the state. Ambiguous health and safety “guidelines” provide, what we believe, is a dangerous level of flexibility in an area where educators are not the experts — public health. Science, not funding, staffing or the ability to secure PPE, should determine what needs to be in place to ensure maximum safety. Our students should not be subject to inequity in the level of health safety they receive at school by virtue of their zip code.
It is in this context that the NJPSA has reached the conclusion that New Jersey schools should begin the 2020-2021 school year virtually. Beginning the school year with statewide remote learning recognizes the critical fact that we simply cannot safeguard our students, our staff and our communities from this highly contagious and lethal virus without the necessary tools to do so.
Acknowledging the challenges of remote learning
We understand that remote learning raises its own list of challenging issues from the digital divide, to the opportunity losses in learning experienced by many students, to child-care concerns of parents needing to return to work. However, even if schools open with a hybrid plan, we still would not have adequately addressed these issues. If students or staff become ill and schools have to return to fully virtual instruction, these issues remain. Yet, by making the decision to return to school remotely now, we can turn our collective creativity and resources to addressing those issues together. The clock is literally ticking and quite loudly.
School leaders know there are key educational issues that must be addressed related to the digital and instructional inequities that arose with the quick transition to remote learning. In order for educators to shift from an “emergency response” approach to digital learning to a more focused, standards-based one, staff professional learning continues to be a critical need. A remote-opening announcement now will empower us to focus our efforts to strengthen teaching and learning in a digital forum through engaging and interactive remote learning practices. Statewide development of learning tools by the New Jersey Department of Education, in collaboration with educators and based upon our student learning standards, will ensure that students in all districts have access to a vibrant curriculum.
Student safety first
We must remember that beginning the school year with remote learning is a temporary solution, and that a full return to in-person learning is (hopefully) just around the corner. School districts have been hard at work all summer planning for reopening and will continue to develop and improve their preparations and instructional plans to transition students back to the classroom equitably and safely, as soon as the time is right.
So as New Jersey considers the question of school reopening this fall, NJPSA asks that all members of our school and state community come together on one intractable goal — safeguarding our students, our staff and our communities from further spread of COVID-19 while building the capacity for all students to engage in high-quality virtual learning.
Student safety is the foundational step of any learning environment. New Jersey has been thoughtful and painstaking in its response to this virus, and we ask for the same, “safety first” approach to the issue of reopening our schools.