Last of NJ’s all-remote schools ease back into classrooms

The COVID-19 challenges remain, some say, but worth the effort to end year in school
Credit: (Edwin J. Torres/ NJ Governor’s Office)
March 15, 2021: First lady Jill Biden, center, learned of the COVID-19 mitigation practices during a visit to the Samuel Smith School in Burlington.

When Gov. Phil Murphy last week implored all New Jersey public schools to reopen in at least some form by the end of this school year, he was pointing to nearly 100 districts and charter schools that have been hold-outs, remaining with all-remote instruction for now a full year.

But as Paterson can attest in one of New Jersey’s largest districts, it was not from a lack of trying that kept kids out of classrooms.

First, at the start of the school year in September, then November, and then January, the Passaic County district set repeated opening dates, only to see them scrapped due to new spikes or worries about COVID-19 cases.

Now, however, Paterson is joining districts looking anew at the prospect of bringing students back into buildings at least on a part-time basis, with the improving COVID-19 numbers and especially the access to vaccines for teachers and other school staff.

But it’s not as though the challenges have suddenly vanished.

Paterson schools announced last week that they will reopen schools on May 3, with teachers coming back first and students to follow. The plan for now is a “hybrid” model, as is being followed by most districts, with students coming in select days of a week and staying at home for online instruction the others.

“Things are definitely looking much better for us,” said Paterson superintendent Eileen Shafer. “The data is all pointing in the right direction.”

But there was much to consider and much work to complete before making the decision to return, from equipping the schools with necessary protective equipment to revising the rules and routines of the school day. The federal Center for Disease Control added another twist on Friday, reducing the distance it recommends between students from six to three feet.

Waiting for air purifiers

Shafer said that will help, as will $6 million in air purifiers that are on the way. “We have 16 buildings that are 100 years old, so for us, we’re eagerly waiting for the delivery of air purifiers,” Schafer said. “We will have one in every room of every building.”

She said the effort will be worth it, even if for a few weeks. “It is really important we get everyone back and acclimated to the new normal,” she said. “This is a good segue to making everyone feeling comfortable again.”

Elsewhere, the challenges are similar for bringing students back. The KIPP network of charter schools serving Newark and Camden is among more than 40 charter schools statewide that have remained all-remote during the pandemic.

Now, KIPP’s Camden schools just announced to their nearly 1,800 students and families that they will return to school and a hybrid model on April 26. The schools’ leader said the game-changer was the state’s recent vaccine prioritization for teachers, allowing some of the previous reliance on case counts and positivity rates to be less critical.

“Letting parents have access [to vaccines], the teachers having access … the data doesn’t apply to us as much anymore,” said Drew Martin, KIPP’s Camden director.

Some families want kids to stay at home 

At the same time, he said it’s like preparing for a new school year, albeit one that will last only a few weeks.

“We’ll have kids who have never been in a school before as kindergarteners,” Martin said. “But also 5th graders who have moved to a new middle school or those moving to high school … In so many places, it will be fresh for everyone.”

That’s not to say there isn’t some reluctance, too. The lack of new guidance from the state Department of Education continues to be a source of frustration for school administrators, and even the latest guidance from the CDC met a tepid response from some corners.

“It is still very important to recognize the specific situation and individual needs of every school and community,” said Marie Blistan, president of the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union. “Districts still need to work collaboratively with their staff and communities to determine the best way to keep everyone safe and learning, following all the best science and upholding the highest standards, until we are completely through the pandemic.”

Either way, there is the reality that not all will return, either. At KIPP in Camden, an early survey of families has so far shown about a third saying they would rather their kids stay home with all-remote instruction for now. The numbers are similar in an early survey in Paterson, too, officials said.

But the balance of both families and faculty are eager to return, their leaders said. “Anecdotally, people are thrilled to come back,” said Martin.

“They have been out for so long,” he said. “I think many have realized it is not just safe to reopen but also valuable.”

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