“We literally have no news on education today,” Murphy said at his latest coronavirus press briefing in Trenton.
Well, school leaders across New Jersey have some news for the Governor: They are ignoring the New Jersey Department of Education’s mandate –supported by Murphy–that all schools begin the 2020-2021 school year with some element of in-building learning. Why? Because a growing consensus says this mandate is an ill-considered, medically-ignorant decision that courts disaster.
Earlier today I posted this letter from Harry Lee, President of the New Jersey Public Charter School Association, addressed to Interim DOE Commissioner Kevin Dehmer and Phil Murphy. Lee writes,
We respectfully request immediate action that would grant explicit permission for some public charter schools to delay in-building instruction and to begin the 2020-2021 school year with solely virtual or remote instruction.
Why? Because charter schools are opening sooner (Robert Treat Academy in Newark opens today) than their traditional counterparts and have yet to receive their personal protective equipment (PPE). Because charter school leaders need the option of an all-remote instructional model as a “necessary tool to help them make decisions that work best for their community.” Because remote learning will keep students, staff, and their families safe.
Also, confoundingly, “schools that have submitted their reopening plans” —as required–to county offices of education “have either not yet received approval or have had their plans rejected due to the request to start the 2020-2021 school year with solely virtual or remote instruction.”
Lee concludes (emphasis his own),
Many of our schools open in less than two weeks. Due to the timing of school reopening for many of our schools, we ask that the Department take immediate action to expedite the approval of public charter school reopening plans.
Let’s look at this from two perspectives, the role of the NJ Department of Education in setting rules for opening and the Governor’s role in refusing to abide by his own advice to not congregate in groups of 25 or more.
In July the DOE issued a lenghthy guidance on reopening schools (“The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education”), which included this mandate: “Districts’ reopening plans must account for resuming in-person instruction in some capacity.” After outrage from school leaders, teachers, and parents, Murphy amended the guidance by adding that all schools must give families the option of full-time remote instruction. However, the mandate to reopen in some capacity remains unchanged. One week ago he added a mandate that all students must wear masks, even when social-distancing, except for 10 exceptions. (See the bottom of the post for the exceptions.)
But this is not July, when our levels of transmission were relatively low — about 1.0, meaning that one person with coronavirus is likely to pass it on to just one person. Over the last few weeks that number –called “R-naught” or “RO” — has crept up. On Friday it was 1.32. Sunday it hit a four-month high of 1.49, which means that coronavirus cases are rising. [Note: New numbers came in and they’re lower. I’ll update when there’s a clear trend.] Lawrence Kleinman of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University says schools shouldn’t open with an RO number larger than 1.0.
Yet Murphy and/or the DOE have yet to cop to reality, despite the trend of school leaders ignoring DOE guidance, rising just like New Jersey’s RO number.
Last week Superintendent John J. Merciante of Manalapan Public Schools wrote a letter to parents:
Last week, Governor Murphy announced a change in the guidance for reopening schools. He stated that it would be mandatory for students to wear masks for the entire school day. While additional guidance was promised, one thing is clear, Governor Murphy has not sat in a classroom in a non-air conditioned school during September for any extended period of time. As I stated in my presentation last week, it is unreasonable to expect that any child would be able to wear a mask in an 85 degree classroom for a four hour period. I will not include that in the plan for the reopening of the Manalapan-Englishtown Regional Schools as a requirement.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said in his daily coronavirus briefing last Monday, regarding the state’s largest school district, “At this rate, I would advise everybody to keep their children home from school. At this rate, I wouldn’t send anybody to school.”
In our second largest school district, Jersey City, reports Advance Media,
The district Board of Education Thursday night unanimously approved Superintendent Franklin Walker’s plan to start the school year with 100% remote learning because of recent spikes in coronavirus cases where schools have reopened nationwide. That’s in direct defiance of state guidelines that requires all districts to have some form of in-person instruction.
On Friday the Camden Education Association sent a letter to Murphy, Dehmer, and assorted legislators, that says,
Camden City School educators and families have serious concerns and anxiety regarding the reopening of school buildings in September. At least 60% of our Camden parents have already chosen to do remote learning. Everyone agrees that we want to be back in school and believes that in-person learning is by far most effective. However, families will not take that risk and one reason relates directly to the confusing messaging between the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the NJ Department of Education School Reopening plan.
More specifically, CEA, after “reviewing the 104-page “Road Back” plan issued by the DOE,” calculated that there are “more than 50 areas where the solutions offered require districts to spend money that they just don’t have, especially with the real potential for budget cuts.” The union says that the district “could easily spend $1,000,000 for just these few recommendations, none of which even begin [sic] to mention staffing.:
Robert Treat Academy Charter School, which opens today, posted this on its website: “Due to public health concerns regarding the Corona virus. Robert Treat Academy Charter School has made the precautionary decision to open school REMOTELY from August 10, 2020 until August 27th, 2020. HYBRID A/B Weekly instruction will start on Monday September 8th. We will continue to monitor the situation and advise you accordingly.“
And the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association wrote to Murphy, also on Friday,“NJPSA has reached the conclusion that New Jersey schools should begin the 2020-2021 school year virtually.” (NJEA has expressed much concern but hasn’t yet asked Murphy directly. Not sure what they’re waiting for.)
Over the last three years the New Jersey DOE has been decimated by former Commissioner Lamont Repollet’s poor leadership, which led to low morale, valuing pomp over circumstance, blatant nepotism, lowering of standards, and –most critically during these strange times –the dismantling of the Department of Education Technology. (Currently as many as 230,000 NJ schoolchildren lack one-on-one devices, broadband internet, or both.)
This divide between school leaders –charter and traditional–and their overseer, the DOE, isn’t just digital. It’s substantive and all-encompassing as those on the ground publicly and deliberately overrule governmental mandates because they believe that reopening schools is dangerous, foolhardy, and subjects their communities to contagion.
This fissure reveals an unprecedented level of distrust, both of the DOE and Murphy. It has consequences that go beyond whether or not schools can go all-remote until students and staff can safely learn in school buildings. If we can’t trust our governmental leaders with protecting our children (as well as their teachers), if we can’t trust them to even secure the necessities for remote instruction like laptops and internet, how can we trust their advice when we get another hurricane or trust their decisions on legislation or trust them to spend our tax dollars wisely?
It should be an easy call for Murphy to allow all-remote openings. If his goal was to force schools to open in person, he’s lost that battle (with the exception of Lakewood). It may be a little late for the Governor and the DOE to completely save face, but they can at least save some skin by acknowledging reality and amending the DOE guidance to allow all-remote instruction. If they do so then school leaders won’t have to defy government mandates in order to keep school staff, children, and their families safe.
Exceptions for Wearing Masks:
- When doing so would inhibit the individual’s health;
- When a student is in extreme heat outdoors;
- When a student is in water;
- If a student’s documented medical condition, or disability as reflected in an Individualized Education Program (IEP), precludes the use of a face covering;
- If a student is under the age of two (2), due to the risk of suffocation;
- When a student is eating or drinking;
- If or when anyone has trouble breathing or is unconscious, is incapacitated, or is otherwise unable to remove the face covering without assistance (e.g., face coverings should not be worn by pre-K students during nap time);
- The student is engaged in high intensity aerobic or anaerobic activities;
- During gym and music classes when individuals are in a well-ventilated location and able to maintain a physical distance of 6 feet apart;
- When wearing a face covering creates an unsafe condition in which to operate equipment or execute a task (for example, students operating machinery in which face coverings may get caught);