Special to TAPintoSPF. 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.

Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to announce today whether schools will remain closed and on remote instruction for the rest of the school year, with most bets that he will call it for the year. But as schools prepare for what some called the inevitability of extended closure, it will raise a host of questions for not just this school year but also the next.

Murphy has yet to show his hand, saying he will save it for the announcement today or possibly tomorrow. He has stressed public health first.

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“We will give you that guidance on Monday,” Murphy said Saturday at his daily briefing. “We want to make sure we are as complete on our next steps as we have been in the other steps we have taken in education."

“Clearly, [health officials] have a huge amount of input in any decision on education,” the governor said. “The health components are overwhelmingly the most important.”

“We care about our kids, our teachers, our parents,” he closed. “We want to make sure we get this right.”

Graduations and end-of-year milestones

There remains the possibility of some conditional openings for the sake of graduations and other end-of-year milestones, but every other indication is schools are out for the year, including the widespread calls from education groups as well as growing consensus from neighboring states.

Maybe fortuitously, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Saturday that New York’s schools would close for the rest of the school year, often a signal that New Jersey is not far behind.

But how this will play out is a big question, with many schools and their educators saying they are adjusting to and ready for the new reality but wide gaps also remaining for many others.

In a state survey NJ Spotlight obtained last week through a public records request, districts reported still close to 90,000 students without the necessary technology that schools are relying on for remote instruction.

That was only slightly down from the numbers at the beginning of the school closure in March. And the survey — while self-reported and incomplete — showed significant gaps especially in cities like Newark, Paterson and Trenton, each with thousands of students without the needed online connectivity at home.

State education officials have continued to say that there are other methods of remote learning that schools can rely upon, and a spokesman on Friday laid out a number of programs available for districts to close the technology gaps, be they stimulus funding opportunities or even private fundraising.

Is equal technology access a factor?

But at least up to a few weeks ago, equal access to technology was one of Murphy’s professed areas of concern for moving forward, and it’s uncertain how much it will play into his decision this week.

Several district leaders reached over the weekend said they were ready for the next phase, but stressed the state then needs to start putting in place a plan for what the reopening of schools will look like in September, if not sooner.

“Our challenge moving forward will be to coalesce around and activate a new learning paradigm come September,” said Kennedy Greene, superintendent of Newton schools. “It will need to be a fully integrated hybrid model that synthesizes the best of digital and traditional approaches.”

Various planning committees have started to meet, including a task force created by state Senate leaders that met for the first time Friday. The group consists of virtually all the major education groups, from the teachers’ unions to the charter schools to the state’s school nurses association.

“There is a long road ahead but I am eager to get things started,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate’s education committee, who is leading the new group. “We have put together a great group and I look forward to collaborating to come up with recommendations for the rest of this school year, the summer and the fall.”

Educators look for guidance on next steps

But with little guidance as yet from the Murphy administration to what a reopening might entail, some other educators said they hoped this and other groups will hear their concerns, as well.

“I hope that the multiple committees … can provide greater clarity than has this far been received moving forward for the work that will be needed when schools reopen — regardless of what that opening looks like,” said Charles Sampson, superintendent of the Freehold Regional High School district.

“I hope more educational leaders are sought out to be involved in the processes at the state level around reopening, because there are significant issues not currently being discussed that will need to be addressed,” he said.

The superintendent of the nearby Freehold Borough schools said the expected announcement sets in motion a number of immediate next steps, including his district’s eighth-grade graduation and plans for summer school.

“If schools are closed through the rest of the year, I will finalize my plan to have a virtual eighth-grade graduation and to set up ways for students and staff to pick up their property,” said Freehold superintendent Rocco Tomazic.

“I’m planning on virtual summer programs and virtual in September, until I know when and under what conditions we can reopen,” he said. “Until then, we will stay at virtual instruction, and we will keep the food going out the door.”

A spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the statewide teachers union and a close ally of the governor’s, said its educators were ready.

“Our members are ready to do remote instruction for as long as it takes to keep our schools and communities safe,” said Steve Baker, the NJEA’s communications director.

“While we recognize the challenges and shortcomings of remote instruction, they pale in comparison to the danger of prematurely opening schools and exposing students, staff and families to illness and death.”

To view this story in its original format, click here: https://www.njspotlight.com/2020/05/murphy-to-announce-today-whether-schools-will-be-closed-through-end-of-year.