TRENTON, NJ — Stressing that there is "no-one-size-fits-all" approach in reopening New Jersey schools in the fall, state officials have provided guidance that gives school districts flexibility in meeting the needs of students and faculty.
"We have every expectation that our kids will return to their schools come September," Murphy said during this June 27 press briefing, as the plan was unveiled by Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet "Today's guidance comes with one overarching requirement: that our public schools will open in some capacity with the health of students, their families and educators being the top priority."
Murphy added, "Our state has 577 public school districts, not to mention our charter and Renaissance schools, nonpublic and parochial schools, and other specialized places of learning. We must take into account the many geographic, demographic and economic differences which exist among our schools and education communities, which can each vary greatly, even among neighbors."
The plan focuses on four principles:
- Ensuring a conducive learning atmosphere
- Supporting educational leaders with planning
- Providing policy guidance and necessary funding to schools
- Securing continuity of learning
Below are the details on each principle:
Conditions for Learning (Health and Safety)
Conditions for learning must not only address students’ and educators’ basic physical safety needs, but also the social and emotional and environmental factors that can impact educators’ capacity to teach and students’ capacity to learn. School districts must adopt a policy for screening students and employees for symptoms of COVID-19 and history of exposure and must strive for social distancing within the classroom and on school buses.
If schools are not able to maintain physical distance, additional modifications should be in place, including physical barriers between desks and turning desks to face the same direction. Each school district must also adopt cleaning and disinfecting procedures. School staff and visitors are required to wear face coverings unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health. Students are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings and are required to do so when social distancing cannot be maintained.
Leadership and Planning
School districts should create restart committees that include administrators, board of education members, educators, parents, and students to coordinate the overall reopening plan. The restart committee should work closely with school pandemic response teams, health departments, and others in municipal and county government to develop district plans. The state education department recommends addressing the following:
- Scheduling – Districts’ reopening plans must account for resuming in-person instruction in some capacity. Scheduling decisions should be informed by evaluation of the health and safety standards and guidance from the state Department of Health as well the stakeholder input on the unique needs of each district. Polices for attendance and instructional time may require modifications for the 2020-21 academic year.
- Staffing – Regardless of the environment, school districts should clearly communicate with teachers regarding expectations and support for student learning. Reopening plans and decision-making throughout the school year should consider access to technology, social and emotional health, and child care concerns. Staff roles must expand to accommodate new health and safety regulations, including hallway traffic, to follow safety guidelines.
- Athletics – The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) has established a COVID-19 Medical Advisory Task Force responsible for providing guidance to allow high school student-athletes to return to athletics as soon and as safely as possible. An NJSIAA Sports Advisory Task Force, comprised of athletic directors from across New Jersey, will review state and local health guidelines, as well as education department guidance, for the 2020-21 school year to determine the extent to which changes may be needed for each sports season. Districts should share their scheduling plans with staff, families, and students at least four weeks before the start of the school year to allow families to plan child care and work arrangements.
Policy and Funding
Readying facilities, purchasing supplies, and transporting and feeding students will look drastically different in the upcoming school year than in the past.
- Purchasing – School districts will likely need to purchase items not needed in the past (e.g., personal protective equipment or sanitizing supplies) and may experience increased demand for previously purchased goods and services. Districts collaborate to create new arrangements that will allow them to purchase items at a lower cost by either purchasing through an established State contract or through a cooperative purchasing consortium.
- Use of Reserve Accounts, Transfers, and Cashflow – To the greatest extent possible, districts should consider making expenditures from various accounts or over budgeted line items to meet unanticipated costs and to manage their cash flow. School districts may be able to use funds on deposit in their emergency reserve accounts to finance unanticipated expenses that arise as a result of COVID-19. A district would need the commissioner’s approval to make a withdrawal from this account.
- Costs and Contracting – Districts are strongly encouraged to participate in the federal E-rate program, which provides schools and libraries with funding support for high-speed broadband connectivity and internal connection equipment.
To ease the burden on schools, the state Department of Education plans to leverage existing and pending federal and state legislation, regulations, and guidance to predict the potential impact on districts and provide targeted assistance.
Continuity of Learning
Ensuring continuity of learning is critical during this time. The degree to which districts will be able to return students to brick and mortar education remains uncertain. The education department anticipates that many students likely made less than one full year of academic growth during the 2019-20 school year. The move to a fully virtual learning environment happened quickly and created significant challenges for staff and students — particularly students already considered at-risk prior to the pandemic. Districts should work closely with their stakeholders to ensure decisions are made collaboratively and transparently and prioritize safely returning students who are most in need of in-person instruction.
Click here for the full 104-page report, "The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education."
Below is the video of Gov. Murphy's June 26 press briefing:
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