NJ lawmakers press to combat COVID-19 impact on schools

Summer school, mental health services figure in several measures winning approval
Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chair of the Senate’s education committee

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Jersey lawmakers have mostly sat back as Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration led the way with measures and guidelines aimed to help both schools and students weather the crisis.

This week, the Legislature stepped up and advanced several of its own ideas for schools going forward, even starting as soon as this summer.

In committee hearings Wednesday and Thursday, the Senate and Assembly moved a wide range of bills that targeted different parts of the pandemic’s impact on schools.

One requires districts provide summer schools for lagging students, while another permits retired teachers to return on a short-term basis to fill staffing needs while still collecting their pensions.

A package of student mental health measures looks all but certain of passage, while another requiring teachers be trained in remote instruction drew some debate over what should be a mandate and what should be left to educators to decide.

READ: Senate budget panel gets view from top on learning loss, state testing and school aid

WATCH: Educators start to think about summer school — and next September

The following is a breakdown of three of the key bills and their prospects:

Summer school

Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chair of the Senate’s education committee, has led the way in pressuring the administration to do more to ensure students are not harmed by the disruptions in learning of the last year and provide support to help students catch up if they are.

To that end, a bill advanced on Thursday would require that school districts provide and expand summer school programs this year and next to students who need and want them, with some flexibility about how that is to be structured.

The general idea appears to have bipartisan support, with a vast majority of districts planning to have programs in place, anyway. But the concern was over it being a mandate, with districts and their associations saying the measure will run up against staffing shortages, not to mention air-conditioning needs in the summer heat.

Ruiz said she has amended the bill with provisions for districts to coordinate or share programs or even seek a waiver altogether if they can justify it. But the senator said she’ll only go so far.

“This bill is very loose in what it says,” she said. “It’s really just a call to action.”

Remote instruction

The last year has been a rude awakening for many districts about the needs and challenges of remote instruction, from addressing the wide gaps in technology access to the struggles with instruction itself.

Aiming to address the latter, a bill moved this week would require that all teacher candidates go through specific training in remote instruction in the likelihood that it will continue or reemerge in some form.

Most of the conversation on Thursday in the Senate committee was over how far the state should go and whether it should prescribe it for existing teachers, too. “I would suggest some teachers 10, 20, 30 years in the job, they should be getting training, too,” said Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Middlesex).

A lobbyist for the state’s dominant teachers union wasn’t so sure, saying that professional development around remote instruction has been plentiful and only arguably effective.

Still, sponsors of the bill said they expect it to be amended to include all teachers before further action.

The Senate committee also advanced a bill that would permit retired teachers to return to work on a short-term basis without forfeiting their pensions for the time they’re back in the classroom. The program would apply for the next two years.

Student mental health

A package of bills out of the Assembly to bolster school counseling and other mental health services has won slow but steady support, with the Senate committee quickly advancing the bills.

Here and nationwide, educators and experts have sounded the alarm that student mental health will be a big concern as schools reopen. Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) has led the push for more services and support with a series of small bills, including one for additional grants to team up with colleges and universities to provide counseling and other services.

Mental health services were a big challenge before the pandemic, with some estimating that the typical district on average has only one counselor for every 400 students.

The expanded programs would be funded with federal relief money, but as with a number of the bills, some lawmakers questioned who will pick up the costs once the federal funding runs out.

“That will be there this year and maybe the year after that,” said Thompson, “but where is the money after that?”

WATCH: NJ Spotlight News Roundtable on student mental health

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