COMMENTARY: This Is What Murphy Is Getting Wrong About COVID and Schools

Here we go again. As the list of shuttered New Jersey school districts grows, Governor Phil Murphy remains on mute, forcing district leaders to make  fraught risk/benefit calculations amidst plague-weary families and politicized epidemiology. Back in September Murphy doubled down on his “no remote instruction” directive but this past Friday, in both a summons to the deja vu gods, and, perhaps, a recognition that his Department of Education was colluding with large urban districts to shut down, he weakly reversed that in-school-only order, saying in an interview that it is up to districts “to make the right decision on the ground, depending on what they are facing.”  

The results are predictable and the primary victims are our neediest students.

Right now the list of NJ school districts closed for at least the next two weeks includes Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Bayonne, Union City, Irvington,Trenton, Elizabeth, New Brunswick, and Camden, where almost all children are economically-disadvantaged and of color. The list of NJ school districts open for live instruction starting today or tomorrow includes Princeton (9% economically-disadvantaged), Montclair (14% economically-disadvantaged), Livingston (1.6% economically-disadvantaged), West Windsor-Plainsboro (5% economically-disadvantaged), and the Governor’s home district Middletown Township (12% economically-disadvantaged).

Murphy’s feeble equivocation on school openings last week hit district leaders hard. Mt. Olive superintendent Robert Zywicki said, “It is really disheartening that superintendents are once again left to be the lightning rods for tremendous angst that is a direct result of a lack of clear guidance and timely communication.” All the way back in June a group of Monmouth County superintendents stated publicly, “we have struggled as leaders with confusing, and at times, contradictory guidance” from the Governor’s Office. The Star-Ledger describes “frustrated school officials” who “said they were looking for guidance from state health officials Thursday on whether they should reopen for in-person classes, switch to virtual learning or modify their quarantine rules for students exposed to the virus.”

“We cannot ask each [school district] to figure this out on their own,” says Robin Lake of the Center for Reinventing Education, “and to manage what are sure to be very intense political pressures from teachers unions and from parents.”

Yet, once again, here we are, leaving each school district quarantined, caught between union cries for closures, parent concerns, and the prospect of more lost learning. Why can’t Murphy show some leadership? Why aren’t we implementing test-to-stay protocols throughout the state? Why isn’t Murphy’s Department of Education creating a high-quality statewide virtual instruction platform for students forced out of school by immuno-compromised family members, as proposed by this school board?

This “lack of clear guidance and timely communication” from the Governor’s Office will work out just fine for Montclair, Princeton, and West Windsor-Plainsboro families. Everyone else? Not so much.

It doesn’t have to be this way, especially with the advent of the new test-to-stay option, which provides students who come into close contact with a COVID-positive person the opportunity to take a rapid test before entering the classroom. Today’s Asbury Park Press has a story about one such outfit facilitating test-to-stay plans. Its CEO Chris Gaeta says, “We’ve been waving this flag for months with the department of health. We’re ironically doing this in many other states except where it is arguably needed most right now — in Jersey. Most states don’t have the financial resources to do test-to-stay. New Jersey does, and we are now seeing the CDC endorse the program in addition to many other districts well outside the northeast.”

  • That’s what they’re doing in New York City, which has almost as many students as the whole Garden State. “We lost almost two years of education,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said during an interview yesterday on ABC’s “This Week.” “We can’t do it again.”
  • That’s what they’re doing in Washington D.C.; students and staff will attend school as long as they test negative for Covid-19.
  • That’s what they’re doing in Massachusetts where schools are open because the Education Department there is spending $5.6 million of its federal ESSER funds on at-home rapid tests.  (NJ, by the way, has $28.6 billion in ESSER funds.)

 

Rapid tests aside, the “staggering” learning loss  and emotional trauma inflicted on low-income children during school closures has been well-documented. In Newark, for instance, only 9% of students in grades 2-8 met state expectations in math and only 11% met expectations in reading yet the earliest our largest district will open is January 18th. Meanwhile leaders in other states and large districts are working hard to keep schools open and students learning: 

  • Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said last week that she is keeping schools open because closing “is not an option.” “We know what this did,” Santelises said. “Black and brown children need to be in school.” Her students have been disproportionately harmed by virtual instruction, she said, and she anticipates students will drop out if she closes again.
  • Maryland public schools, said State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury, will stay open. “I said it earlier in the week. It is not going to change,” Choudhury said, adding that his view is aligned with those of U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Here’s Cardona on yesterday’s “Face the Nation”: “I know we’ve had an Omicron surge, but I still believe very firmly and very passionately not only as an educator, but as a parent, that our students belong in the classroom, and we can do it safely. We have better tools than we had in the past to get it done. We know what works, and I believe even with Omicron, our default should be in-person learning for all students across the country.”

Let’s face facts: Covid-19 is not going away but moving towards endemicity. There will continue to be children who need remote instruction due to immuno-compromised relatives (or parents who found they learned better that way) and these families should have that option, just like they do in Montclair, where school choice comes bundled with median home prices of $700K.  But most children need to be in school. (A NJ teacher with young children says, “virtual kindergarten is a joke…Seventy-five percent of lower elementary school and kindergarten is social-emotional learning. They’re not getting that staring at a screen. They need to be in school with their peers.”)  

And the buck can’t stop with each superintendent caught in the crosswinds of political union pressure and family needs. Murphy needs to own that buck, to realize that his vision of a state school system as 600 self-governing fiefdoms is the antithesis of his self-preferrred mantle of progressivism,  privileging the wealthy and disenfranchising the poor. Now if only he would take the helm and lead.

Laura Waters

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