Pressure Building On Murphy to Walk Back Ban on Remote Instruction

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New Jersey school district leaders and parents are expressing increasing frustration with the lack of concrete guidance from the state Department of Education for reopening schools, as well as Gov. Murphy’s continued insistence that schools open full-time and in-person. In May he rescinded an order allowing parents to keep their kids home, saying “we know that we can get back fully in person, safely, with the right protocols in place.”

While Murphy has issued a mask mandate for schools (although there’s some pushback) and both national teachers unions have expressed support for a vaccine mandate for school staff, the reality on the ground is that the delta variant is surging, kids under 12 can’t get vaccines, and wearing masks has become a political statement, not an epidemiological response to a pandemic. Students are going to get infected; teachers may too, even those vaccinated. Quarantining groups of students or even whole schools, superintendents are saying, is inevitable during the 2021-2022 school year. 

Yet, with a lack of clear guidance from the Governor’s Office and the state DOE on remote instruction, school leaders are struggling. 

Douglas Petty, superintendent  of Lodi, says the “advisements” from the DOE are not enough. “There has been very little where it’s cut and dry. It’s left up most times to the discretion of the district,” he said. “As school districts, we’re looking for clear guidance.”

Clarity is hard to find.

In response to pleas from school leaders, last Wednesday the DOE issued new guidance intended to ensure students under quarantine still have access to “virtual or remote instruction…in a manner commensurate with in-person instruction.” Last year districts, the DOE says, “employed immense creativity and innovation” with remote instruction  so that students “are able to continue their progress even when excluded from school.” Just do it again.

But everyone knows that’s not true. In New Jersey’s largest school district, Newark, there was “staggering learning loss”: only 9% of students in grades 2-8 met state expectations in Math, and 11% of students met expectations in reading. A mother from middle-class Westhamton, NJ said of her district, “It was just really crazy to deal with. Things were always changing and the communication was terrible, it would come to you in an email two days beforehand like — ‘Oh yeah, we’re not going to have school or we’re not going to have an aftercare program.’”

Peg Kinsell, a policy director at SPAN (Statewide Parent Advocacy Network), said she took exception with language in the DOE’s most recent guidance “because it does not mandate providing virtual learning for quarantining students.” 

Some parents, anticipating another disruptive year, are making other choices: homeschooling, learning pods, or private schools. One director of a hybrid program told the Star-Ledger, “there’s been a blow up of interest, especially since the mask mandate.” A parent said, “I feel like we should all have choices and not be forced to do things that we don’t want to.”

New Jersey isn’t alone in offering lackadaisical leadership. The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) just put out a database that shows, state by state, policies on masking, vaccines, full in-person instruction, virtual learning options, and continuity of learning plans. The database also includes whether states are issuing clear guidance on remote instruction, whether education departments are providing “clear and coordinated support,” whether they have solid Covid-19 mitigation strategies, and whether they’re communicating “early and often” to the public. The analysts write,

States must also ensure that students who need to learn remotely can access high-quality remote instruction. This will likely mean offering a contingency plan for a potential tidal wave of new enrollments for virtual options as escalating cases renew fears about transmission, especially for vulnerable students and families.

The impact of failing to take these steps could be profound, as families once again lose trust in the systems charged with keeping kids safe and learning. States can act now to ensure local school systems are keeping kids safe and learning all year long.

Here is some of NJ’s information from CRPE’s database:

  • The state’s reopening plans are not tied to “specific indicators or transparent benchmarks.”
  • No state requirement exists for teacher or student vaccinations.
  • The state is not tracking teacher or student vaccination rates.
  • The state is requiring in-person instruction.
  • The state is not requiring options for virtual instruction.
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