This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

Title: “Clarifying Expectations Regarding Fulltime Remote Learning Options for Families in 2020-2021

Author: New Jersey Department of Education, sent to all public school districts and charter schools

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Date: Friday, July 24, 2020

What is it: The new guidance for the all-remote option was added last week to the state’s existing guidance for what schools needed to do to physically reopen schools in September. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues – even at relative stable levels in New Jersey – schools are facing pressures from families who want to be allowed to stay at home with remote instruction if they so choose. This three-page supplement is the state’s rules for that option, including requirements for specific online learning plans, request procedures and communications.

What it means: The guidance was released several days after Gov. Phil Murphy announced that families would be allowed to stay all-remote if they so choose. He had initially said that schools would need to provide at least some in-school instruction for all students. This latest guidance was inevitable. But it also speaks to the near-certainty of still more guidance and changes coming in what has been a fluid situation, to say the least.

Flexibility key: Murphy said on Friday in releasing the guidance that districts will be afforded wide flexibility in how they want to address each need.

Quote: “We have heard from numerous parents and families who have asked for this, and we have heard them loud and clear. Our top priority is keeping students, their families and educators safe. And to do that, flexibility, local decision making and empowering parents and educators are all critical,” Murphy said.

On the ground: As many as a third of New Jersey families have said in polling and surveys that they may opt to stay home as schools reopen. About 18% of surveyed parents in the Freehold Regional district said so even before this new guidance came out. Superintendent Charles Sampson said now districts can plan for it. “I’m sure every district at this time is working with their families on how they will do this. That is a good chunk of families.”

Six key pillars:

  • “Unconditional eligibility” for full-time remote learning: Any family can opt for all-remote instruction, regardless of medical condition.
  • Procedures for submitting requests: Minimum requirements will be in place for submitting a request to a district, including the span of time being requested and plan for transition to full in-person.
  • Scope and expectations of remote schooling: The guidance says “any student participating in the board’s fulltime remote learning option must be afforded the same quality and scope of instruction and other educational services as any other student otherwise participating in district programs.” That includes the length and time of instruction, equal access to materials, and a multitude of other schooling components.
  • Procedures to transition to in-school: A minimum amount of time for remote instruction will need to be defined by the family and district before being able to transition back to in-school. The process also includes specific services that would transition back.
  • Data collection: Districts will be required to collect data on their remote instruction option, who is using it and how it is implemented. The required categories include the number of students participating in full-time remote learning by each of the following subgroups: economically disadvantaged; major racial and ethnic groups; students with disabilities; and English learners.
  • Communication: The districts will be required to develop full communications programs that will inform all families of their options, including in all home languages of the district. The communications must include the full scope and expectations of the instruction, procedures for making requests and transition planning.

What’s not answered: Basically leaving it up to districts, the new guidance does not detail next steps in how districts will develop remote programs for students who request it. The districts’ plans are due to the state and then the public within four weeks of the opening of school, basically early August.

Teachers, too: The latest guidance does not speak at all to teachers and other employees who may seek a remote option as well. The administration has said that would be left to local personnel decisions and collective bargaining.

Quote: “The health and safety of our educational communities is paramount, and with this guidance we are providing districts with even greater flexibility to ensure that they can meet this need,” Murphy said. “We are not mandating any one specific way to move forward.”

Digital divide: District-by-district counts remain elusive, but state officials continue to say that as many as 230,000 students statewide – a sixth of the state’s total enrollment – do not have the necessary tools to take advantage of remote instruction. Murphy last week announced an additional $50 million in federal relief, but that is half of the need by officials own count.

What’s next: The Legislature has continued to press for a host of issues related to schools reopening, with some leading lawmakers calling for the start of school to be pushed back so districts can better prepare. Short of that, the districts’ plans will be coming out over the next two weeks, previewing what the fall will look like.

To read the article in the orignal format click: Fine Print: Virtual Back-to-School Checklist