The Road to Reopening Is Filled With Potholes, Says NJ School Boards Association

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One week ago the New Jersey School Boards Association published a report called “Choosing The Best ‘Road Back’ for Our Children.” Here, NJSBA explains the need for “critical state and federal support for public education during the pandemic” and describes “the obstacles and challenges school districts have faced in developing reopening plans and many of the strategies they have implemented.”

Question: Why would NJSBA publish this? Answer: While Interim Commissioner Kevin Dehmer says NJ is “too diverse” for top-down guidance (deferring to his predecessor Lamont Repollet as well as Governor Phil Murphy), superintendents and school boards beg to differ. They wanted clear, direct assistance in March, not vacuous announcements and protean fluctations in guidance. They wanted the “best” route to learning during a pandemic, not the rocky road, protean in its fluctations, provided by the state.

NJSBA executive director Lawrence Feinsod nails it when he refers to “ever-changing, inconsistent and, often, inadequate state and federal guidance.”

More on that in a sec. The 29-page report covers a host of other issues: NJSBA’s opposition to using federal CARES money for non-public schools; support for legislation that would allow districts to use capital reserve funds for PPE and other necessary safeguards from coronavirus contagion; liability protection (much district-level decision-making is guided by fear of litigation); waivers for this school year on instructional day minimums, the state accountability rubric called QSAC, and staffing ratios.  

Yet the commentary —based on surveys issued to school board members, superintendents and school business administrators, interviews, and reviews of school reopening plans —always seems to come back to general dismay at the DOE/Murphy’s failure to lead from the top. At the end of the report, NJSBA praises the DOE and the Department of Health for recent clarifications. And yet, it says, “more needs to be done.”

Isn’t it a little late for that?

Here are some highlights that capture school leaders’ consternation:

  • On PPE, a central Jersey district said, “We are all competing for the same resources. It would be helpful if the State and other entities purchased in bulk and then let us purchase from them.”
  •  NJSBA notes that, overall, “districts still expressed a need for the state to play a more prominent role in helping them to secure the products necessary to ensure a healthy school environment.”
  • “In its surveys, NJSBA found a high level of concern among school administrators and board members about a lack of guidance and direction from the state.”
  • “Over the summer, it became apparent that many of those challenges remained as school districts contended with constant changes in the state’s ‘game plan’ to restart education.”
  • “In June and July, while school districts were involved in developing their reopening plans, many local officials expressed a need for the Department of Education to provide a template with directions that were more concise than the Road Back report.”
  • “Since the spring, NJSBA and other statewide education organizations continually pressed state officials for strong, direct, and clear health and safety guidelines, as well as information on the health metrics that would guide the reopening and/or closing of school buildings.”
  • NJSBA’s Feinsod on August 19th re: district reopening plans: “[T]he process has been particularly difficult due to ever-changing guidance.”
  • For all districts, whether reopening in person, hybrid, or all-remote, “points of concern have been funding, the supply chain for personal protective equipment and technology and adequate staffing, along with frequently shifting state directives and the need for firmer guidance in developing plans.”
  • NJSBA notes that, overall, “districts still expressed a need for the state to play a more prominent role in helping them to secure the products necessary to ensure a healthy school environment.”

Here are some comments from schools leaders:

 “Direction from the state [is needed] regarding Screening and Contact Tracing and circumstances for positive tests and quarantining.” – High School District, Southern New Jersey 

“Some support from the state dept. of health about who is required to be quarantined when an outbreak occurs, how distant those contacts need to be for quarantine or testing, and what are the parameters for complete shut-down. Who makes that call? Who has to be notified? None of us has Ph.D. in community health.”– K-12 District, Northern New Jersey − 

“The lack of specific and consistent health information is inhibiting my ability to make educational decisions. If the health information, such as what is required for daily student ‘visual screenings’ were specific, it would eliminate staff and families making comparisons among districts. It would also ensure that all districts are following the same health precautions.” – Elementary District, Southern New Jersey 

“The guidance from the state is extremely frustrating and lacks specifics. Providing districts with a template and specific reopening models to choose from would have been more helpful.” – Elementary District, Southern New Jersey

As of today, 801 reopening plans have been submitted to the state. The overcount—we have 591 districts– is because some had to completely rewrite plans to comply with ever-changing rules released not by the DOE but by Murphy. Of those 801, 545 have been approved by the  and 221 are “under review.”  Those 221 include 91 all-remote plans, an option not revealed until three weeks ago

Kind of sums it up, right?

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