Are school districts ready for a full-time return to the classroom?

Some broad goals have been sketched out, but nitty-gritty concerns like masks and social distancing and even building conditions must be addressed

When Gov. Phil Murphy spoke about school reopening in the fall, he confirmed what many districts had already been planning: buildings fully open and students and teachers in class, in person.

But Murphy left open a few questions, too, including some that educators and policy makers may need to addressed sooner than later.

NJ Spotlight News’ education writer, John Mooney sat down with anchor Rhonda Schaffler on Tuesday to discuss the questions and what is next.

Will masks and social distancing still be required as they are now? If distancing is expected, what if there isn’t enough room? What if families or teachers balk, as some have this spring? What about school busing and lunch, each subject to their own rules now?

Murphy said further guidance is to come in June, and surely there will be more after that and into the summer as the new school year approaches. Still, his statements Monday reaffirming in-person schooling were welcomed by some of the major stakeholder groups as a good first step.

A vast majority of New Jersey’s schools are back to at least some in-person instruction already, and Murphy’s words removed some uncertainty for the fall.

“There was still a question about whether districts would have to provide for any remote instruction,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. “Having heard that definitive answer (on Monday), now they know what they have to do.”

READ: As school year ends, Murphy says all-remote education must also end

WATCH: COVID-19 testing and staff vaccinations key in reopening of Newark schools

Concerns about building conditions

At least so far, there is no one blueprint for schools restarting in the fall, with many states grappling with the challenges — and the politics — within their borders. Eschewing New Jersey’s famous home rule for now, Murphy is stepping forward and placing a political bet in an election year with his statewide mandate to get students back in the classroom.

But in New Jersey, there are already some caution flags, including from the state’s largest teachers union. For teachers, one prevailing question has been the condition of buildings they are returning to, with some tensions leading to legal challenges.

“There is still work to do to ensure that every student and staff member returns to a safe learning and working environment,” said Marie Blistan, the president of the New Jersey Education Association.

“Unfortunately, there are still many school buildings throughout the state that don’t meet minimum standards for the health and safety of students and educators,” she said.

Others questioned whether there would be any opportunities for remote instruction at all going forward, whether to cover for snow days and other emergencies or just opening up options for students and families.

“Without doubt, getting kids back to an in-person learning environment is critically important,” said Lawrence Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“But school districts should also have the choice to use the innovative remote-learning tools and techniques they have developed during the pandemic for certain students in certain circumstances.”

 

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