With just two months to plan for the reopening of school buildings for the 2020-21 school year, districts say they have had their hands tied on planning as they are still awaiting guidance from the state on what going back to the classroom will look like during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“No matter what the guidance will actually be, the only options are back to normal with social distancing when possible, continue virtual learning, or some type of hybrid with multiple modifications,” said Upper Township Superintendent Vincent Palmieri. “Most districts are planning for all possible options, but until official guidance is given, we are all in a holding pattern.”
Last week, a coalition of state education organizations, including the New Jersey School Boards Association, expressed frustration over the lack of guidance from the state, which was promised by the governor to come out in mid-June.
“We have been conveying to state leaders the growing frustrations of our memberships with the uncertainties, lack of consistent guidance, and lack of needed resources to meet students’ educational and wellness needs,” reads a June 17 letter from New Jersey Leadership for Educational Excellence to its membership.
Schools shut down indefinitely for in-person instruction in mid-March, transitioning to a remote-learning model with little notice, which has had its share of failures and criticisms.
On Thursday, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that state Department of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet would be releasing the guidelines Friday.
Murphy in May said that schools would be closed through June 30 and guidance for the fall would be forthcoming. He has said that he was hopeful that classes will resume in-person in September.
“The department has made a major effort to listen to the concerns and challenges of stakeholders in an effort to create guidance that is driven by their input,” NJ Department of Education spokesman Michael Yaple said, noting the DOE’s survey of parents attracted 295,501 responses.
The DOE has also held hundreds of stakeholder meetings, he said.
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Other states — although not as hard hit by the virus as New Jersey — have released at least some plans for reopening including Tennessee, North Carolina, Illinois and Minnesota. Connecticut, which is part of a partnership with New Jersey and New York in its COVID-19 response and recovery, was expected to release guidance Thursday.
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Egg Harbor Township Superintendent Kim Gruccio said she had a call with the county superintendent Wednesday morning on the issue and was told to wait on making plans.
“That guidance should come out any time now and no one has any idea as to what it will say,” she said.
Meanwhile, Gruccio is starting an “Opening of Schools Committee” to review state guidelines, research ideas, and provide feedback that is relevant to the township, which serves more than 7,000 students and employs 730 teachers, support staff and administrators, as well as an additional 510 noncertified staff members. It also operates eight schools, a central office, a transportation building and its own bus fleet.
“As you can imagine, there are many areas of concern — health screening process, (personal protective equipment), teaching and learning, social distancing, cleaning process, lunches, transportation, athletics ... to name just a few. The world as we knew it when it comes to schools has drastically changed and as of today. How it will look and function in the near future is unknown,” Gruccio said.
Part of the frustration among school officials stems from the state already releasing guidance to child care facilities and summer camps on how they could begin operations this summer, as well as plans for “Extended School Year” programs for special education students.
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“We need to know exactly what we will be planning for and we need adequate time to do so,” said Wildwood Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings. “ We have concerns regarding the safety of our staff and students in the fall with respect to COVID-19. However, with the economy opening back up, we also have concerns regarding the safety of our students when unsupervised at home.”
In the letter, Leadership for Educational Excellence leaders called for “clear and universal” health and safety guidelines to serve as the foundation for a school reopening plan and not broad guidelines from the CDC released last month.
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“We have been working tirelessly to convey to state officials the need for guidance, support and resources to enable districts to successfully meet the needs of their students when schools reopen,” said Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director. “In addition to clear guidelines from the state, our recommendations include adequate planning time for districts, regulatory flexibility, and additional resources to meet health and safety needs.”
The letter also called for additional funding, estimating it would cost $490 per pupil for personal protective equipment in addition to the added costs for transportation, increased staff and sanitization efforts.
New Jersey schools were awarded $310 million in federal stimulus this spring funds to cover costs related to the coronavirus.