Schools face uphill battle preparing to reopen this fall

How do schools return to normal instruction and balance health and safety? That’s the question plaguing school districts across New Jersey as the deadline approaches to present their fall reopening plans. Gov. Phil Murphy’s left it to districts to decide what schedules will look like, and most are looking to guidance from the CDC that recommends students be 6 feet apart. That means drastically limiting the number of students allowed in a classroom.

“We foresee the easiest option being some sort of an alternating day schedule where you have students in school on one day and another cohort in another day. But that only works if you’re able to have 50% of your student population in the building at any given time. And for our larger schools, like our high school and our middle schools, it would more likely need to be a multiple day rotation, as many as four day rotation,” said West Orange Public Schools Superintendent Scott Cascone.

Verona is also considering a hybrid model of in-school and home school learning, but plans to invest in new technology to better support its teachers through that process.

“One of the things that is on the table right now is purchasing teachers higher quality laptops with high definition cameras and microphones, so then that way they have the tools that are necessary to be livestreaming to the students who are at home,” said Rui Dionisio, Verona Public Schools superintendent.

There’s no shortage of challenges for teachers who’ll have to present lessons to the classroom and to a digital audience. But the price tag to the district for that investment, plus the cost of personal protective equipment, will be close to $500,000. Additionally, the district is facing a potential cut in state aid of close to $200,000. Funding from the CARES Act will help, but only a little.

“We’re looking for flexibility with the state on what constitutes a full day. Right now it’s four hours. If we tried to do two, four-hour sessions in a day and then give the travel time with the buses, it’s going to be next to impossible,” said New Jersey Education Association President Marie Blistan.

“Even before we got the guidelines, we were always approaching our planning based upon the premise that we couldn’t significantly increase our expenditures on busing,” Cascone said.

That’s because West Orange is staring down a $1.5 million cut in state aid. But districts like West Orange and Verona are in affluent communities. There’s growing concern that poor, urban and rural districts will be hit hardest when schools reopen. A virtual conference by the New Jersey Work Environment Council addressed some of those issues.

“We are acutely aware that it is the Black and Latinx and Native American, and other poor working and frontline working families that’ll continue to face disproportionate consequences from the pandemic. In fact, the poorest communities hardest hit by COVID, will send their children to the poorest schools in the worst physical condition and have very few resources for a quick turnaround to building systems,” said Claire Barnett, Healthy Schools Network executive director.

Camden schools will be buoyed by the Camden Education Fund. It’s granting up to $100,000 to each eligible school in the city to support a safe reopening that will include sanitizing school spaces regularly.

But even as districts work toward a plan, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued an unusual and strong recommendation that students return to the classroom in the fall, saying the social and emotional impact of being home is a greater threat to kids than the virus itself.