ESSEX COUNTY. NJ — When the pandemic began in March 2020, direction regarding the school day and instruction from the New Jersey Department of Education to local public-school districts was issued in broad strokes with little specifics, leaving much of the details to the individual districts until The Road Back Restart and Recovery Plan was issued in June. 

Governor Phil Murphy’s announcement last month that beginning September--barring a drastic change in positivity rates--public school districts will provide only in-person learning five days a week and opportunities for remote learning would not be an option will be a genuine game changer for area school districts.

Superintendents and boards of education will now have to prepare for the return of students, but may need to realistically prepare to pivot on short notice to a hybrid or remote model if the governor changes his position and permits this type of instruction. When asked during the press conference if remote instruction will be still be an option for September, the governor responded, “I want to be unequivocal about this. We are expecting Monday through Friday, in-person, every school, every district. Obviously, if the world goes sideways, we have to revisit that. But as of this sitting, the answer is no.”

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This announcement has generated mixed responses from stakeholders in the educational community. Dr. Lawrence Feinsod, Executive Director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, commented, “Boards of education want in-person instruction as well and are certainly moving in that direction for September. Let’s also remember that many districts have already had in-person learning in place this year, and that has clearly increased in recent weeks. Boards are working with their superintendents, teachers associations, and with parents, with the goal of opening in September, if not before.

“Looking ahead to next year, there will be exceptions to in-person learning — in some cases for children with special needs, and for children who are medically fragile. We also believe that there are times when a school district could use remote learning to offer students an advanced placement course or an opportunity for academic enrichment, which might otherwise be unavailable.”

The governor has been contacted by multiple stakeholders as to their positions regarding remote and hybrid instruction that has been offered to date. Mounting pressure from frustrated parents who have organized has led to rallies, petitions and lawsuits. Recently, a parent rally was held in Montclair organized by West Orange resident Rachel Keane. Parents have united to form a grassroots coalition from communities including South Orange, Montclair, West Caldwell, Verona, Cedar Grove, Scotch Plains, West Orange, Maplewood, Nutley and Caldwell to advocate for their children’s return to the live instruction.

“The rally in Montclair was held on March 13, the one-year anniversary that schools closed in New Jersey," Keane said. "The purpose of the rally was to get Governor Murphy's attention and lay the blame at his feet for this inequitable and harmful situation. Our demand was that the governor mandate a full-time in-person learning option in New Jersey as soon as possible but ideally by April, and we also asked that the state relax the social distancing guidelines in schools to three feet so that children could attend more often.”

Keane continued, “We had about 100 people in attendance from all over New Jersey. We chose Montclair because Montclair represents one of the worst situations in the state in terms of prohibiting even special education students from being in the classroom; we also chose Montclair so that the acting state department of education commissioner, Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, could easily attend. She lives in Montclair. But she didn't show up despite being invited ... which is unfortunate, as she missed hearing some incredibly moving speeches.”

The Montclair Board of Education had brought an action against the Montclair Education Association hoping the court would issue an injunction requiring the teachers to return immediately to in-person instruction, however the court did not grant the relief requested. April 12 marked the first day students were able to return to live instruction since March 2020. The district opened its doors for Pre-K through Grade 5 students, however plans for the upper grades have not yet been disclosed.

Districts across Essex County have differed greatly in their delivery of services since September 2020. The West Essex Regional School District started the new school year remote and then introduced its hybrid model in October. The administration had planned for multiple scenarios utilizing a 65-member stakeholder advisory group that was tasked with addressing specific facets of operations. 

Regarding Murphy’s statement, Superintendent Damion Macioci commented that he has not “received any feedback stakeholder regarding next year.”  Looking ahead, Macioci added, “As with this year, we will plan for multiple scenarios for the 2021-2022 school year. I do not anticipate staffing issues, and we will follow the governor's guidance regarding the remote learning option.”  Macioci confirmed that “those guidelines have not yet been provided.”

Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone of West Orange oversees a district with nearly 7,000 students and more than 1,100 staff members. The district recently opened its doors for hybrid instruction, and Cascone is attempting to formulate plans for September given the information he has. 

“There is a momentum and groundswell of sentiment, if you will, moving public schools in the direction of being in person five days a week for full days in September," Cascone said. "Whether because a minority of school districts have been able to do this or simply because we recognize inherently that we must find a way to move forward with some degree of normalcy next year, this appears to be the path which will be followed. I would imagine that it was with this in mind, that Governor Murphy has issued his decree/order that school districts will not be able to offer a virtual option next year. I do think, however, that it would be problematic for local school districts to not be afforded this local discretion.”

Cascone continued, “The reality is that if we are going to go five full days a week, we will not be able to operate in alignment with the current social distance guidelines, even at 3 feet. Now, perhaps those guidelines will be abandoned or loosened in advance of September, or perhaps they will not. However, if we are welcoming students whose parents are comfortable with that lack of distance and have teachers who have all been vaccinated and thus essentially at little to no risk, this should not be a problem. That being said, there may very well be parents who are not comfortable with that from a safety standpoint and who wish to keep their children home virtually. I am hopeful that we are able to offer that to them. Further, the voluntary reduction of the student body by 10-15% would be helpful for onsite occupancy and safety.” 

Cascone did confirm that a remote student would be able to participate in extra-curricular activities.

Addressing challenges that instruction has presented, the West Orange superintendent said, “We also recognize, however, the inherent operational and practical challenges that hybrid instruction have presented for both teachers, students/families, and administrators. Therefore, we are exploring ways, if permissible, in which we can hire and utilize a separate cadre of virtual teachers to service exclusively those students who are home. We are closely monitoring the American Rescue Act fund and are hopeful that the predicted funding will come through. If that is the case, we will have ample funding, not only for this, but also for other vital mental health support services, as well as funding for testing and the like.”

Cascone confirmed “projected funding is north of $8 million, but that has not been confirmed nor have we received any definitive guidance relative to allowable expenses. We are expecting that it would be largely aligned with the parameters of the ESSER I & II grants. My sense, however, is that there would be even greater flexibility and that this funding is designed to help address shortfalls in revenues.” 

Asked about the impact to the budget and long-term staffing costs, Cascone confirmed, “We would foresee the funds adequate enough to fund the salaries and benefits if necessary, for one year. This would not likely extend beyond that. Staff members would be hired with full disclosure relative to this reality. No local funds would be used, our budget is presently balanced to the penny.”

As for where specifically the virtual teacher cadre would be assigned, Cascone stated that “dedicated virtual teachers would be most necessary on the elementary level. On the secondary level, it would not be out of the question for a teacher to have a section of only remote learners, or in the case of an AP, that could potentially have to be a hybrid arrangement. Notwithstanding my previous commentary about hybrid, there might be select cases in which we would need to utilize it.”

West Orange resident and mother of two Lauryn Weinshank has been an advocate for returning to full-day instruction and has been frustrated in the process to date. Weinshank commented, “I am a healthcare professional and know the horrors of Covid-19. I worked in the hospital throughout the pandemic. I understand the fear.  I also understand science. Science shows that children are at a minimal risk for infection and spread - especially in elementary schools.”

Noting her frustration regarding the delays of providing live instruction, Weinshank said, “First, West Orange schools couldn’t open because of ventilation. Then it was teacher vaccinations. Then it was community spread. Then it was CDC guidance. All of these issues have been addressed or mitigated and there is still resistance. All I hear are excuses. Other districts came up with solutions.” 

Addressing the effect, the hybrid model has had on her children, she said, “It’s heartbreaking to see what has happened to our children. We will see the devastation for years to come. My son is in sixth grade. He is a good student, and his grades remain excellent. His mood is horrible. He is angry. Depressed. Bored. He is so much happier on days he goes to school. My daughter is in second grade. She has become clingy and emotional. She wants to do the bare minimum. ... I don’t know what the barriers are anymore. Goal posts are moved depending on how the wind blows.”

Superintendent Dr. James Heinegg of the Caldwell-West Caldwell School District is preparing for the return to pre-pandemic hours of operation. Heinegg said, “I took Governor Murphy to be delivering a two-part message: his first statement about the expectation of full in-person learning in September and then his qualifying statement a few days later regarding accommodating students who have health needs. That is essentially what we are doing: planning with the expectation that our schools will be offering full in-person learning in 2021-2022, but, recognizing that we may have some students with additional health and safety needs that will need to be addressed.”

Dr. Janet Sotomayor, a resident of West Caldwell with three children in the district, has been a vocal advocate for expanded in-person instruction for the students in the Caldwell-West Caldwell School District and supports the governor’s decision. Sotomayor said, “The science and research support that in-person instruction can be done as long as the appropriate precautions are taken. Other countries and states have been successful and the option to have everyday full day instruction should be available for every student.” 

Noting the academic gaps the students are facing, and the impact of the quarantine Sotomayor remarked, “Our children have been suffering significantly both academically and psychologically.  They need to be back in school full time, and it can be done safely.”