Op-Ed: Educators need guidance now on distancing, remote instruction

An ‘all or nothing’ approach is not conducive to effective educational strategies and does not take into account the varied needs of districts as they emerge from the pandemic
Betsy Ginsburg
Elisabeth Ginsburg

Right now, New Jersey’s educators are planning for next fall in the hope that the vast majority of our students will be able to attend school in-person, five days per week.

But a successful return to school requires intelligent, flexible strategies, and development of those strategies is contingent on guidance from the state Department of Education (DOE) and the state Department of Health (DOH). The DOE is in the process of assembling checklists — drawn from stakeholder input — of the kinds of supports districts will need in the areas of learning delay, operations, finance and insecurities.

These checklists will be a great help, but in the end, planning for fall comes down to the answers to two critical questions: Will distancing guidelines indoors be set at six feet or three feet, and will districts be able to offer an all-remote option to students in the fall? District budgets have already been finalized and staffing notices put out, as required by statute. The answers to the two critical questions need to come now.

Six feet or three?

Current Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance for indoor school settings suggests three-foot distancing for all elementary schools, and for middle and high schools in areas with low to moderate transmission rates. Six-foot distancing is required in areas with high transmission rates. Six-foot distancing is also required in adult-to-adult and adult-to student situations, as well as in cafeterias (where students may be unmasked while eating), and any indoor activities that involve “singing, shouting, band, or sports and exercise.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends one meter (just over three-foot) social distancing, along with other precautions.

Six-foot distancing is almost impossible for schools at full capacity and a substantial impediment to Gov. Phil Murphy’s stated goal of getting the vast majority of New Jersey students back to full-time, in-person instruction in the fall. Districts need to know now whether the six-foot distancing requirements will be changed to three-foot distancing, allowing for planning of effective scheduling, appropriate staffing levels and resumption of normal lunch service.

All-remote instruction

Under Executive Order 235 (the most recent extension of the state of emergency originally declared in Executive Order 103 in March 2020), school districts must offer students all-remote instruction during the state of emergency. If the executive order is lifted over the summer and no other changes are made to the administrative code, districts will no longer be able to offer remote education to students other than those with long-term illnesses who receive traditional home instruction.

On May 5, the DOE proposed a rule change for remote instruction, as follows:

“The Department is proposing a new subchapter to align with P.L. 2020, c.27, which allows for a district board of education to utilize a Department-approved program for virtual or remote instruction during a school closure for more than three consecutive school days due to a declared state of emergency, declared public health emergency, or a directive by the appropriate health agency or officer to institute a public health-related closure and count those days toward the 180-day requirement established by N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-9.b.”

The proposal, while helpful, does not cover situations where there is no state of emergency.

Further guidance on remote instruction is essential and cannot come too soon. An “all or nothing” approach is not conducive to effective educational strategies and does not take into account the varied needs of districts as they emerge from the pandemic. Districts must have the ability to determine how to use remote instruction in a variety of situations including localized flareups of COVID-19 or other contagious illness; quarantined students who have traveled to countries on the quarantine list; and nonconsecutive days when severe weather necessitates school closures. Without that ability, affected students will not receive instruction, and school days will have to be made up.

It has been suggested that the simplest, most cost-effective way to accommodate the need for remote learning of a relatively short duration might be to replace traditional in-person home instruction with virtual home instruction and expand virtual home instruction eligibility parameters to accommodate students affected by illness, quarantine or weather.

Immediate guidance is also critical if parents will be allowed to continue to choose all-remote instruction in the fall. Providing this option will have significant budgeting and scheduling implications for districts.

Pivoting on solid ground

Whenever educators have asked for guidance on the issues of remote education and social distancing, they have been told to be ready to “pivot,” should situations change. During the COVID-19 epidemic, we have become adept at pivoting. However, pivoting is most effective when those who must do it are standing on solid ground. For us, that critical solid ground is clear, concise and timely directions on social distancing and remote education for fall.

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