COMMENTARY: Murphy Dwells in Denial While Parents and School Leaders Plead for Remote Options

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“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt,” said Mark Twain, but that riverbed is where our mulish Governor has planted his flag. It was back in March, almost six months ago, that Phil Murphy issued his mandate that “all students will be back in school for full-time instruction” during the 2021-2022 academic year and “parents will not be enabled to…opt their child out of in-person instruction.” 

Gov. Murphy needs a dose of reality. Happy to help with these facts:

  • In New Jersey over the last 14 days there has been a 20% increase in diagnosed COVID cases, a 34% increase in the number of people hospitalized for COVID, and a 116% increase in deaths from COVID. Example: On July 5th there were 86 new cases. On August 28th there were 2,034 new cases.
  • “The virus is seeking out unvaccinated people, and children are more likely to be unvaccinated,” said Stephanie Silvera, an infectious disease expert and professor at Montclair State University. Dr. David Cennimo, an infectious disease expert at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, explained, “Delta had some mutations that we had also seen on Alpha, and we saw more kids get infected with Alpha. That seems to have played out. So more children are getting infected now.”
  • Almost 25,000 parents (as of Monday morning) have signed a petition demanding that Murphy permit parents the option of choosing virtual learning for their children.
  • At Robert Treat Academy, a public charter school in Newark that began in-person classes August 2nd, 11 teachers recently tested positive for COVID so, “out of an abundance of caution,” 700 students switched to remote instruction. All students and staff have been wearing masks.
  • Some districts (Wall, Homdel, Toms River) are resisting mask mandates, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regards as essential for mitigating the risk of transmission. “Philip Murphy,” shouted one Toms River parent, “is not our baby daddy!”
  • Late in May an unvaccinated teacher in Marin County tested positive for COVID but continued to teach her elementary school students without wearing a mask, despite a mask and COVID testing mandate.  Half her class (55%) was infected during two days. Murphy has issued a vaccination mandate for all teachers but parents aren’t allowed to know if their child’s teacher has been vaccinated and district compliance may vary. Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon said, while the “overwhelming majority” of teachers are vaccinated, “it’s a personal question. This is an educational system. It’s not a restaurant where you can have everything you want.”
  • Some NJ superintendents have already conceded that full-time, in-person instruction will be interrupted –at some unknown rate–by quarantines due to COVID spread. But according to guidance from the state Department of Education, while it is “strongly encouraged” for districts to offer remote instruction to quarantined students, it is not required. Sparta Superintendent Matthew Beck said, “the Governor said there will be no remote learning, so, we’re not planning to offer remote learning, but I also find it hard to believe, because students might have to quarantine or be out for legitimate COVID reasons.” Peg Kinsell of Statewide Parent Advocacy Network commented, “I really think it should be a requirement for school districts to provide virtual or home instruction for these students. We’re not in agreement with the state on that language.”
  • This group of superintendents wrote, “inconsistencies between varying Executive Orders issued by Governor Murphy have placed members of our communities at odds with school administration and, one another, over school-based requirements for children.” The new guidance issued by his DOE has been described as “byzantine,” vague, and impractical.
  • Right now only 48% of NJ voters think schools should reopen fully in-person, down from 56% in May.

Gov. Murphy no doubt recognizes the toll COVID has taken on student learning and the difficulties faced by parents juggling supervision of remote instruction with work responsibilities. Yet denying the reality of the worrying trend…that more children are being hospitalized with the coronavirus than at any point during the pandemic,” as well as rising numbers of contagion among all demographics, is not leadership but weakness. 

Imagine if Murphy, instead of indulging in half a year of wish-fulfillment, had directed the DOE to mobilize school districts to improve methods of remote instruction so  student learning loss would be minimized during inevitable closings. Imagine if County Executive Superintendents had been authorized to lead an effort among their districts to keep students in school when it’s safe but collaboratively create a scaled-up model, accessible to all children in the county, that offered access to online learning during quarantines and/or when parents felt their children would be safer at home. Imagine if the Governor’s Office and the DOE had recognized that COVID wouldn’t magically disappear and had pushed the Legislature to enact a law that authorized a statewide online school that would be part of the NJ public education system, like the Florida Virtual School that last year served a quarter-million students.

If any of that had happened, we wouldn’t be stuck in the muck of a riverbed pretending that the water is clear.

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