Murphy OKs virtual-only plans based on school district needs

Gov. Phil Murphy’s been under enormous pressure from unions, teachers, administrators, principals and supervisors to have school districts go all-remote in the fall. But that’s not exactly the guidance the governor offered Wednesday.

“Districts that cannot meet all the health and safety standards for safe in-person instruction will begin their school year in an all-remote fashion. Public school districts will need to spell out their plans for satisfying these unmet standards, and a date by which they anticipate the ability to resume in-person instruction,” Murphy said at his press briefing.

In a joint statement from the unions and associations, they said, “The question of whether and when to reopen for in-person instruction is first and foremost a public health decision that cannot be left in the hands of nearly 600 individual school districts. The stakes are too high, and the consequences of a wrong decision are too grave.”

Murphy has touted flexibility as the best option for districts, but that flexibility has led to lack of uniformity across the state, with plans that range from in-person, to hybrid, to some requesting all-virtual.

Elizabeth is planning on being completely online.

“Today, 425 teachers have indicated that they have special needs and cannot come to a classroom. That’s about 25% of our workforce. We expect that to grow to around 600 by Sept. 11, as people will then cast their late retirements. It is mathematically and physically impossible if we do not have the teachers to have in-person teaching,” said Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage.

But until Wednesday, districts submitting virtual-only plans didn’t know if they had been approved because the governor’s mandate required some in-person instruction. But Wednesday’s announcement opens the door for the plans to move forward.

“I’m relieved. And as a mom, I’m relieved as well. I think it’s going to be a much more stable start to the year if we are doing something we know we can do, right? So remote learning, we’ve been working, many of us, all over the district in the summer, to improve our skills with online learning and improve our approach to preparing lessons. And I feel like that’s something we can do successfully,” said Sandra Toll, a teacher at Thomas Jefferson Arts Academy.

The district’s working to close the digital divide, so all students have access to remote learning.

“We are in the process right now of distributing 9,000 additional laptops and tablets to students all the way down to pre-K. We are pairing instructional videos for parents, students, teachers, by our tech department to make that work. Classes are going to be contemporaneous, it’s going to be live. This isn’t going to be pre-recorded. We’re going to take every effort we can and to use these five weeks to make it even better,” said Pat Politano, a spokesperson for the Elizabeth School District.

Olivia Iheke picked up her device Wednesday. She said she’s grateful that her district is planning for remote learning, even if it means missing the start of her senior year.

“I have asthma, so I’m automatically not safe for coming to school,” the Elizabeth High School student said.

The deadline to submit plans to the state has already passed for most districts, but Murphy said Wednesday that certain districts will be able to resubmit plans.

The Department of Education is reviewing plans as quickly as it can so districts can roll out their fall instruction, and so those that need it can have the flexibility to start at a later date.