Back to School in NJ: What to expect this fall

School leaders turn their attention to planning for a return to normal this fall

The educational disruption to New Jersey students due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been extreme by all measures. But with increasing numbers of vaccinated adults in the state and new cases dropping, attention (and planning) is turning to how schools can begin returning to normal for the new school year this fall.

A wide range of challenges deserve consideration, including instructional, logistical and emotional. In a virtual roundtable discussion last week, NJ Spotlight News heard from school administrators, educators and policymakers about their planning and vision for the reopening of school in the fall.

Gov. Phil Murphy opened the discussion with a Q&A with NJ Spotlight News Founding Editor and Education Writer John Mooney, followed by a panel of four educators.

Opening Q&A:

Gov. Phil Murphy with John Mooney, NJ Spotlight News Founding Editor and Education Writer

Panelists:

David Aderhold, Ed.D, Superintendent of Schools, West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District

Dr. Lisa J. Gleason, Assistant Commissioner, Division of Academics and Performance, New Jersey Department of Education

Dr. Kwame R. Morton Sr., Principal, Cherry Hill High School West

Chantel Wooten, English Language Arts Teacher, 6th Grade, Joyce Kilmer School, Trenton Public Schools

Moderator:

John Mooney, Founding Editor & Education Writer, NJ Spotlight News

The following are edited excerpts from the conversation:

Governor’s vision for schools in September

Gov. Murphy: I hope this is as close to normal as possible — five days a week, all in school, extracurricular sports, unmasking. I’m hoping we don’t need to wear them. That’s one. I think we can allow the time on the clock to be our friend here over the course of the summer. But I’d say the word I would use would be normal.

Absolutely no remote?

Gov. Murphy: We’re going to have to have some level of latitude for folks who have extreme health concerns. But I would say the bar will be very high.

I don’t think there’s any replacement for the richness that kids and educators get from being in person for the main body of their education.

Would you have done anything differently?

Gov. Murphy: We will do a complete a political post-mortem on everything we did. But the big one was shutting down. And the answer is no, I wouldn’t have done that differently. That was the only option we had.

First day of school

Chantel Wooten: At our school, we live by a motto from my principal — start the way you want to finish. Because we started in a remote environment this year, I had a party my first day in school. I think when the kids come back in person, I’m going to have another party. It’s going to be live this time.

David Aderhold: Welcoming back over 9,500 students on that day, there’s going to be a lot of permission given to spend time reacclimating, building relationships with our students. We’re going to really need to spend and be very mindful about a purposeful reopening and giving time for students and staff to get reacclimated.

Lisa Gleason: Before we can really move to content and teaching and learning, we have to really think about school as a safe place. … how to create that safe space again for them so that we can get back to what will be a new normal, not the return to normal or business as usual.

The new normal

David Aderhold: The idea of normal, I don’t know what that means anymore. But what I know is I have my students and staff returning in September and we’re going to work diligently to make sure that our staff feels comfortable, prepared and trained to welcome our students back into classroom instruction and be prepared for any potential outcome and transition that I think we may be finding ourselves in. I’m not someone who thinks that we’re out of the woods yet.

Lisa Gleason: We can’t go back to business as usual and there is not a return to “normal.” What does the new normal look like? Well, certainly the pandemic was incredibly challenging. We know this for educators, students, parents, our school communities, but perhaps there are opportunities for us to reenvision minimally, how instructional technology can be used in the classroom to maximize student engagement and maybe promote even higher levels of learning than we’ve had before.

Chantel Wooten: I’m definitely going to continue with technology, as I did before. However, I’ve learned a whole lot more about the virtual world. I’ve learned a lot more from my students than I learned from my colleagues. I will continue to use my students as teachers, as well.

Tensions over no-remote option

Kwame Morton: I absolutely would anticipate that in a community as large as ours, that there will be individuals who may be uncomfortable about coming back. And I think it’s incumbent on us to try to create as safe and as comfortable environments as possible to give them some sense of reassurance that coming into the building is fine, that we are taking health, hygiene and safety with the highest regard and that our community is OK.

Enough space to social distance?

Chantel Wooten: Not six feet apart. A colleague and I were just discussing that today. We were like, well, how are we going to fit 25 class sizes of 20 to 23 and 24?

Kwame Morton: I don’t know if we have room for full capacity, to be quite honest with you. If each of our classes is at full capacity, I know for a fact we would not be able to socially distance at six feet. Three feet would be a major stretch. Some rooms are a bit larger than others, and it’s better to socially distance.

How the kids are faring

Kwame Morton: I think this has been an emotionally draining time. You know, it’s been mostly taxing for our students with some of the things that our kids have had to grapple with and to see happening across our country, aside from just COVID. But if we think about the civil unrest that has occurred, it’s been a lot to endure, has been a lot to take and take in for our kids. We’ve attempted to engage our kids by speaking with them, allowing them to dialogue and express their thoughts, emotions, concerns. You know, we have staff members, guidance counselors, student advocates, student assistance counselors. It’s like an all-hands-on-deck type of approach to working with our students and giving them an opportunity to vent and express and work through some of these concerns they have. I do think that there will be mental health concerns that we need to deal with next year — we’re anticipating it. We’re planning for that and trying to put staffing and resources in place now in anticipation for that in the fall.

Closing thoughts

Lisa Gleason: …we can unequivocally say this has been a time like no other. But I believe the old adage that in all crises lie opportunities and those opportunities lie in the lessons we’ve learned from this situation — perseverance, determination, new ways to think about teaching and learning … Particularly with regard to instructional technology, we’ve had amazing educators and students and parents and caregivers who’ve partnered with our teachers over the past year. And we’ve seen the power of community and the power of technology to break down the walls between classrooms and our homes.

David Aderhold: I’ve just been tremendously inspired this year by our educators, by our administrators and by our teachers in particular. … There is an importance of making sure that we’re supporting our staff as they step into the next year, foster those relationships and support them in the return with their students.

Kwame Morton: We have a tremendous opportunity to ensure that in our school communities, equity is actionable, no child is invisible and every child is seen. You know, we have a great opportunity to create accepting environments that acknowledges all of our children.

Chantel Wooten: As I open up and start my new year with my newly charged superpowers, I hope all educators know that whatever they’re supercharged with, as they start the year they look each student in the eye and say to them that they were born to win, and that victory is their only option.

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