Expect staff shortages, online classes in NJ schools this fall

Cherry Hill Superintendent Joseph Meloche tried to sketch out what school might look like for the district in the fall via a Zoom conference call. His district of some 11,000 students will offer a hybrid model, according to plans recently unveiled. It features one completely online class day.

“We are looking at one full day where nobody is in school, and then two days where cohorts of children are in school. And the classes being basically broken in half to reduce the number of children that we have in our schools,” he said.

It might resemble a Newark summer school pilot program that has small classes with desks 6 feet apart and surrounded by plexiglass shields. Personal protective equipment, like masks, will become a major purchase for every district. And some, like Camden, aren’t sure they’ll have enough teachers after taking a staff survey.

“To just get a sense of how many of our staff members would require accommodations or felt that they would not be able to come back in person. Right now it looks like that number is about a third of our staff members,” said Katrina McCombs, Camden City School District superintendent. “We know that it’s a real fact, and we have to have contingency plans in place to make sure that we can meet the needs of our learners.”

Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy tossed school districts another curveball when he said any parent will be able to opt out of in-person classes and choose online-only instruction. It creates an even bigger challenge for school districts that are scrambling to plan for fall, says NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney.

“It throws a wild card into all their planning because you don’t know how many families are going to be opting out. So they have to not only figure out what their classrooms are going look like, but busing schedules, and how they’re going to distribute food. This adds another one, and this is a very unpredictable one,” Mooney said.

Camden, with 15,000 students, has managed through federal funds and philanthropic gifts to equip all students with Chromebooks and tablets, plus offer internet access to 92% of students. That’s up from 30% earlier in the year. Camden won’t announce its plan to reopen until July 28.

“We still need to be flexible and ready to pivot back to full remote learning at any given time because the science tells us this. We’re just learning. It’s like we’re planning, we’re planning in quicksand, but we have to still plan,” McCombs said.

An FDU poll last week showed 46% of New Jersey residents want schools to reopen and 42% prefer online-only. Parents need to plan, too. Plainfield schools posted an online form asking families to choose their preference, but the city’s mayor remains staunchly opposed to on-campus learning.

“I can’t think of a way to isolate 11,000 students in a classroom setting. And so I think it would be dangerous for us to have our students return to the classroom,” said Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp.

Mapp supports Murphy’s plan to bridge the so-called digital divide and provide laptops and internet service to every student for online study.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Senate Republicans Tuesday proposed spending $105 billion to help schools reopen. It’s a political goal for the Trump administration, but districts feel caught in the middle.

“Ultimately, everybody’s not going to be happy with the plan that we come up with. That just is real. There are too many people involved and there are too many parts that are involved,” said Meloche.

But all the preparation also depends on the virus. If transmission numbers trend upward, plans will get thrown into disarray all over again.

“This thing is one big, hot — I won’t say mess, per se. I don’t think I used that word. But it’s certainly turning into quite a process and we’re still more than a month out,” Mooney said.