Entering the homestretch of the school year, Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday upped the pressure on schools to reopen to students this spring, publicly calling out the last of the districts and charter schools that have stayed all-remote.
Murphy at his regular media briefing opened with the announcement that all but a handful of more than 800 districts, charters and specialized private schools have reopened in one form or another, whether with all in-person instruction or a hybrid model that mixes in remote instruction.
“At the beginning of March, the number of districts holding to an all-remote schedule was 142 — or nearly one in five of all public school districts, charter and renaissance schools, and special-services schools,” he said. “Today, that number is down to just 16.”
Murphy names names
Maybe more critically, Murphy put the squeeze on the three large districts that have remained all-remote and don’t have a current timetable to return: Paterson, Passaic and Pleasantville.
“The simple fact remains that we cannot leave 43,000 of our students out of their classrooms for an entire year,” Murphy said of the three. “That is not fair to them, their families, their communities or their futures.”
For months, Murphy has been an advocate for schools reopening, but he has been hesitant to name districts that have been slow to come around. On Wednesday, he indicated the Department of Education itself could take action.
“We will continue to work with these schools through the Department of Education, and alongside local leaders and stakeholders, to move this along,” he said.
When asked what specific steps were being taken in those districts, a department spokesman said further details were not available.
Whatever is in the works, changing course will not be easy. In Paterson, for instance, several planned reopening dates have come and gone, and significant resistance to reopening has come from teachers and other staff dissatisfied with the condition of buildings.
The district announced Wednesday evening that it planned to try again on June 1, bringing back teachers first and then its students with disabilities and limited English skills a week later. It did not lay out a timeline beyond that.
“Just as the emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic is happening in stages, the reopening of Paterson Public Schools buildings will happen in stages,” said Paterson superintendent Eileen Shafer.
In Pleasantville, the decision to stay remote through June has been announced to the community, with the next in-person instruction now slated for summer school.
Murphy on Wednesday said his administration would seek that schools now using a hybrid model also look to open their doors further “in these final weeks.”
“We continue to work with the districts currently in a hybrid stance or in-person for certain grades or buildings to increase opportunities for in-person instruction across the board, including being able to get to a full school day,” he said.
Guidance for graduations and proms
The state’s acting education commissioner, Angelica Allen-McMillan, has put out guidance and other rules for districts to follow as they close down the school year. Last week, it was the latest guidance on holding graduations and proms under health and safety restrictions.
The State Board of Education met Wednesday as well, with the ongoing impact of the pandemic looming large on several key issues.
For instance, the deadline for districts to implement new state standards into their curriculums was postponed from this coming fall to September of 2022 due to the disruption of the pandemic.
At another point in the meeting, the board and department officials discussed changes in a code that would revise attendance policies to address possible virtual learning in the future.
School attendance — or the lack thereof for many students — has been a prime concern during this year, and board members asked if the department was specifically tracking it. Officials said districts were tracking their own students, but the department was also collecting the data and assisting where needed.
“This is something we are definitely in touch with through the county offices,” acting assistant commissioner Daryl Vincent said. “Even though in a pandemic, we are still actively engaged to make sure students are attending.”