COMMENTARY: With Re-Election Looming, Murphy Chooses Politics Over Parents

As the number of COVID pediatric infections and hospitalizations in New Jersey rises due to the Delta variant and the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that young children are at risk of becoming severely ill (and won’t be eligible for vaccines any earlier than the end of 2021), education issues in New Jersey are again front and center. Raucous board meetings with angry residents are now are a feature in local media, especially as a growing group of parents continues to plead for the option of remote instruction instead of sending their children back into classrooms they consider unsafe. Currently only 48% of NJ voters think schools should reopen fully, down from 56% in May.

While there are valid reasons to carp about the state Department of Education’s failure to offer practical guidance to schools and families, the person ultimately responsible for the DOE’s dysfunction, as well as forcing parents into untenable health calculations, is Gov. Phil Murphy. And –let’s get real–the DOE Commissioner is accountable to him. As the gubernatorial election approaches, there’s never been a better time to hold Murphy responsible for the state’s public education system and demand he step up his game.

Three months ago Murphy issued a cookie-cutter ban on remote instruction: “We know that we can get back fully in person, safely, with the right protocols in place,” he said. This sort of premature, science-illiterate pronouncement (some epidemiologists have been predicting since 2020 that coronavirus transmission could continue through 2025) is not good governance: it’s politics, front and center. For instance, even the Governor’s Office press release on yesterday’s announcement of a vaccine mandate for all school staff includes endorsements from six different state union leaders.

Is that a problem? I think it is. Of course public education is political; how could it not be? Yet there has to be a balance and Murphy’s  deference towards special interest groups–most obvious in his obeisance toward NJEA leaders — shows he’s lost that balance or, more likely, never saw the need for it in the first place. One way this dissymmetry reveals itself is in random edicts — like no remote instruction — that can be contrary to the needs of students, teachers, and their families. Sure, it’s challenging to integrate new options into static institutions. But it’s possible. For instance, according to the Center for Reinventing Education’s database that tracks the way school districts and states are responding to the pandemic, the vast majority of large districts are offering the option of virtual learning to accommodate parents who might not be ready to send their kids back into classrooms, and more are adding that option as transmission rates worsen.

Yet Murphy can’t seem to adjust his directive to fit conditions on the ground. Maybe he doesn’t want to appear flaky or indecisive. Maybe he isn’t listening to parents, or doesn’t care what they say, even though 18,000 have signed this petition from the New Jersey Parents for Virtual Learning. Maybe he knows, deep down, that recalibrating his position is too big a lift for the DOE’s flaccid leadership. (This group of superintendents called the DOE — and Murphy — out for “confusing, and at times, contradictory guidance regarding masking, quarantining, isolation, and other intricacies brought forth throughout the COVID- 19 pandemic.” For another critique of the NJ DOE’s guidance on learning during COVID, see this evaluation from the Center for Reinventing Public Education.)

Or maybe he figures that if the political winds blow favorably, propelling him toward re-election, then all is well with the world.

Thus, we are one of twelve states in the country that aren’t allowing parents to make health decisions for their children, particularly Black parents who are disproportionately reluctant to send their kids back into school buildings. Last summer one poll found that almost 70 percent of Black households with school-aged children said they support or strongly support keeping all instruction online but only 32 percent of white parents felt that way. A recent national survey from RAND finds about 20% of Black and Hispanic parents were “most hesitant” about sending their children back for in-person schooling in fall 2021.

Tafshier Cosby, a parent activist from Newark, says about Murphy’s refusal to permit remote instruction, “To just arbitrarily make a decision for a whole state without talking to the people closest to the issue? It’s doing parents a disservice. And frankly, it’s disrespectful.” 

Meanwhile, what are NJ DOE leaders busy with? It’s unclear: they are almost always absent from Murphy’s Monday COVID press conferences when public education is the item under discussion, like yesterday when Murphy announced his vaccine mandate for teachers. Must be those super-important tweets, like:

 

NJ Spotlight, rarely critical of Murphy or the DOE, noted today on the DOE’s updated guidance, “the latest revisions leave unchanged a byzantine process that recommends different numbers of required quarantine days depending on the rates of infection in the school and the broader community.”  Also noteable in the updated guidance: innocuous pablum like “Encourage students and staff to cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue” and impractical caveats like “The CDC recommends a distance of at least 6 feet between students and teachers/staff and between teachers/staff who are not fully vaccinated in all settings.” 

Tissues? Keeping students six feet apart? This feckless advice from the state may be irrelevant to families eager to send their children back to school. For others, it’s frightening and, as Cosby says, “disrespectful.” At the very least these parents deserve the option of keeping their children home with access to full-time remote instruction (some ideas here), especially those who can’t afford to join a micro-pod or hire tutors or send their kids to private schools.

It’s so basic: If parents don’t think their children are safe, they’ll keep them home. If students don’t feel safe, they won’t learn.

This pandemic has exerted a terrible price on academic growth, with “staggering learning loss” for our neediest students. We all hoped we were done, that things would return to “normal.” We were wrong and now we have to recalculate how we manage risk. The Governor’s responsibility is to adjust as well but he’s not doing that. Perhaps with enough public pressure he’ll prioritize public education over politics and start taking responsibility for a situation he owns.

Laura Waters

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