In announcing a vast majority of schools were ready to reopen in one form or another, Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday trumpeted the accomplishments of New Jersey’s public education system and played cheerleader-in-chief for schools’ readiness amid the pandemic.
But it has been anything but cheery for schools and their families to navigate the changing and sometimes-conflicting guidance from the Murphy administration over the past two months.
How will Murphy be judged by how he navigated the maelstrom of one of the public’s most fundamental issues: education?
Murphy on the high wire
It’s obviously hard to tell at this juncture, and circumstances are likely to change further as schools actually start teaching again. But there is little doubt among pundits and others that Murphy is walking a treacherous tightrope.
“A crisis situation gives a leader a lot of leeway, as long as they are seen as consistent in their decision-making process,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
“There is a lot to suggest Gov. Murphy has not been consistent in the last few weeks,” Murray said in an interview, reeling off examples about colleges and indoor dining, as well. “But we still don’t know if the public sees it that way.”
Others said it’s a no-win situation, and Murphy has done the best he can with fast-shifting circumstances.
“You can only work with the information you have, and the information he has had keeps changing,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the former chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Education Association and now director of the Guarini Institute for Government and Leadership at St. Peters University.
“But parents need certainty, school districts need certainty,” she said. “These big districts especially don’t turn on a dime. They need months to prepare.”
Murphy has clearly taken a path that he is leaving the decisions to local districts, albeit with some guidance from the state. And that has led to a wide mix of approaches from schools, with Murphy announcing Wednesday that a majority of districts would be following a hybrid mix of remote and in-person instruction.
Overall, of the roughly 545 plans so far approved, 328 will follow a hybrid path, 150 will be all-remote and 50 are all in-person, Murphy said. Another 250 plans have yet to be finalized.
Pushback from districts
The state’s interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer on Wednesday said a uniform approach would never have worked in a home-rule state like New Jersey.
“As we move toward reopening and ensuring this same high-quality education to our students despite current challenges, some people have said there should be a single set of rules handed down by the state — a rigid, unbending, one-size-fits-all approach,” Dehmer said during Murphy’s media briefing Wednesday.
“That doesn’t work in a state as diverse as New Jersey,” he said. “What does work is collaboration, adaptation and flexibility.”
But the approach of leaving it to local officials to decide how to open is facing push back from school districts themselves, with the state’s school boards association stressing that point in its latest survey of its boards.
On Wednesday, the state’s superintendents association sent a letter of “great urgency” to the governor, saying schools are facing a shortage of staff willing to go back into the classroom. It asked if schools in this situation could go all-remote, an issue not addressed in the state’s latest guidance.
“In many school districts the ability to operate school safely is impaired as substitute personnel cannot be found to fill these positions or other staffing arrangements are not viable to meet health requirements,” read the letter from Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
Risks all around
Reopening schools is hardly a risk-free path for any district or any governor. For instance, New York City just this week went from reopening classrooms to delaying the restart by another 10 days to allow schools more time to prepare.
Yet it also is clear that even on the national level, all eyes are on the schools as not just a gauge of the pandemic’s spread but also the public’s own readiness
Former Vice President Joseph Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, on Wednesday devoted a speech to the topic of carefully reopening our schools. President Donald Trump has been less cautious in demanding schools reopen in person, even threatening a loss of federal funds to those that don’t.
In New Jersey, the political narrative remains incomplete.
“Was this a stroke of genius on Murphy’s part to kick this can down to the district level?” Murray said. “We just don’t know yet.”
“Some parents are happier than others, and whether they will hold the superintendent or the governor responsible … is open to question.”
Added Gold Schnitzer: “The real judge will be the test of time. Did schools keep kids healthy while providing the best education they can? We just don’t know yet.”