On March 11, 2020, around 10 p.m., hours before our seniors were scheduled to depart from Newark Airport to Disney, I cancelled the trip due to concerns about COVID-19. On that day, New Jersey had announced the first state death from COVID-19, and there were a reported 23 total confirmed cases. The evening of March 11 brought forward the postponement of the NBA season, a 30-day travel restriction for travel to Europe, and the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. Disney World announced closure the next day. School districts moved their school communities to a virtual environment essentially overnight with shifting health parameters and limited guidance.
As we crest the one-year mark, it is important to pause and recognize the monumental shift that has occurred in education. We owe our thanks, appreciation and gratitude to the educators who have transitioned from their classroom to virtual environments, cared for our students in socially distanced and in-person environments, provided in-person or virtual therapeutic programs, driven our school buses with masks and shields, distributed meals, served as school nurses, maintained a safe and clean educational environment, and cared for our most vulnerable students.
But we owe you, the school community, much more than that. One year into a pandemic, we owe you clear guidance on the rules to govern a safe return to our schools. We exited March 2020 — in crisis and with limited direction. Our physical closures led to over 600 school districts making their own plans to complete the school year. We transitioned under the guise of home rule and the choices of individual districts. Together with our school communities, we navigated a path forward. Now, a year later, our school communities are in very different places and are implementing vastly different educational models.
Guidance for students, parents and teachers
Our students, parents, and educators deserve to know the anticipated rules for the 2021–2022 school year. We understand that guidance may shift as the conditions surrounding COVID-19 are fluid and apt to change, but there are fundamental questions that must be answered today. When planning to meet the educational needs of our most precious community commodity, our children, providing guidance in advance should not be a revolutionary consideration. While there are literally hundreds of possible questions, I highlight nine questions for consideration:
- Will parents be provided the ability to select an all-virtual instructional model? The answer to this question fundamentally impacts how we will build our class rosters.
- Will the state of New Jersey continue to mandate 6 feet of social distancing as recommended by the CDC and authorized in the Road Back plan, or will we allow 3 to 6 feet of social distancing, which is allowed by the American Academy of Pediatrics? This impacts the classroom capacities utilized and will essentially determine the length and frequency of our instructional model.
- Will the recommendations regarding social distancing on transportation routes remain in effect? This impacts the number of students who can ride safely together to school.
- Will school districts be allowed to provide flexible instructional models, such as half-day in-person and virtual afternoons? Decisions such as these impact our ability to safely manage cafeterias and lunchrooms, as many school facilities cannot provide a socially distanced lunch for all students.
- Will the state authorize emergency certifications due to the high number of anticipated retirements coupled with shortages of new teachers and a limited substitute teacher pool? We are in dire need of certified staff, given growing shortages that will cause systemic vacancies.
- Will the state mandate universal mask-wearing in public schools in fall 2021? This question assumes that students will not be vaccinated prior to the opening of school and that vaccinations for students will be difficult to mandate.
- Will the state of New Jersey mandate vaccinations for all school employees? If the state is going to mandate vaccinations, school districts will need clear guidance as such determinations may impact contractual and staffing considerations.
- As districts are building instructional models that rely upon changes to administrative code, will districts be allowed to create virtual academies that exist beyond the declared state of emergency? Virtual learning environments have worked for many students and have great potential to impact home instruction, support the development of learning academies, facilitate extended-day environments, and allow a variety of instructional support models.
- Will school districts have the ability to move to closure or shift to a virtual environment should there be a community outbreak? School closures related to health and safety considerations will be inevitable in the fall, and without such allowances, school districts will be forced to move to full closure instead of transitioning to a virtual learning model.
Answers are needed now
We must remember, creating the frameworks for the 2021–2022 school year must happen now. Over the next three months, school districts finalize staffing, budgeting, student and teacher schedules and bus routes. We build extended school year programs, implement summer extension programs, and complete individualized education programs for students receiving special education services. Before- and after-school care facilities book months in advance, so families need guidance now.
The answers to the above questions are crucial to all our plans. Our educators are exhausted, and we cannot afford to spend the summer limping into next year with inadequate guidance. Next school year has already begun; school districts need the guidance today so that we can properly plan for tomorrow.