TRENTON, NJ – New Jersey’s education system during the COVID-19 crisis was the main subject of discussion when New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet  joined Union Mayor Michele Delisfort, State Senator Joe Cryan, and Union Health Director Marconi Gapas at their weekly Facebook Live Q&A meeting on Friday. 

Kean University recently announced that Repollet will become President of the university, replacing retiring President Dawood Farahi.  The majority of questions sent via the Facebook live platform for Repollet were regarding the budget cuts and elimination of programs at Kean University.  However, no questions about Kean University were addressed by Repollet.

In his opening remarks, Repollet said, COVID-19 "continues to shine a bright spotlight on the sacrifices many of you and your families make every day to support our students’ needs.  On behalf of my team and Gov. Murphy, thank you for everything you’re doing to help New Jersey weather this unprecedented time in our history.”

Sign Up for Union Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Repollet said the educational community is working tirelessly to support students and their families through remote instruction, ensuring food service and deliveries, special education services, counseling and mental health support, and other critically needed services. 

“I understand the deep and profound impact COVID-19 has had on the country,” said Repollet.  “I speak with our educational commissioners across the country weekly to assess the national landscape as we all try to negotiate this abrupt, unexpected transition to a remote educational system.”

Repollet said students have switched to a completely different learning mode, and adjustment have been particularly challenging for students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, and countless others who rely on their schools to provide individualized support.

Repollet said over 89,000 students or 6.3 percent of New Jersey’s public school population of 1.4 million still lack access to the internet at home.  “Our schools and communities are making tremendous progress bridging these inequities,” he said.  While over 12,000 students gained access to the interest at home after the state declared students must learn remotely, “we will not rest until every student in New Jersey has equitable access to digital resources.”

Repollet said the department’s guiding principle is the ease the burden of state requirements in order to allow schools and communities to focus on the resources students need, get back to student learning and not have a focus on the business of education.

He said the Department of Education has taken these important steps:

  • Cancelled statewide assessments this year and streamlined evaluation of teachers and administrators to maintain fairness for educators adjusting to new digital environments.
  • Waived the graduation assessment requirement for any senior expected to graduate in the class of 2020 but who had not met the state requirements
  • For students with special needs, lifted state barriers to provide occupational, speech, and physical therapies and other related services remotely.
  • Worked with state child welfare agencies to provide guidance and guidelines for safe, affordable childcare and ensure that childcare is available for essential workers
  • Continue to update the website with evidence-based best practices to address the social/emotional needs of students who are experiencing trauma during the crisis.

“Remote learning is truly a new frontier for our students, educators and parents,” said Repollet, and “ this learning environment has focused us to shift our thinking about things such as grades and graduation.”

Repollet said recognizing graduation as a major milestone for students and families, Gov. Murphy  is committed to providing school districts with as much flexibility as possible to honor graduates while abiding by health and safety requirements guidelines that continually evolve based on the latest public health data. 

As of this week, the department is providing three alternatives to traditional commencement ceremonies:

  • Virtual
  • Drive thru/drive in
  • Modified in-person outdoor ceremonies after July 6

Repollet said each district must strike a balance between preserving the health and safety of graduates and their families while celebrating their graduation as a major milestone and the hard work these students have achieved.  Decisions about the most appropriate type of ceremony in each community must be made local in consultation with municipal officials – local health department, OEM, mayor, law enforcement, fire department, Repollet said.  “No matter what form of ceremony you take, each graduate should take pride in their academic achievement and their hard-earned resilience that will serve them well into their adult life.”

Repollet said the Department of Education’s efforts are now focused entirely on the planning of reopening schools.  “We are working around the clock to find effective solutions to this enormous challenge before us.  We understand reopening must be planned in close collaboration with the people on whom it will have the most impact.  That’s why we’re listening closely to school and district leaders, teachers, students and parents, all who play a critical role in this next chapter.”  A reopening plan is anticipated in mid-June, Repollet said.  In response to a statement from Cryan indicating that it’s possible brick and mortar schools will not be in open in September, Repollet replied, “yes, sir.”

Cryan added under this commission, funding to the Township of Union schools has increased each year, “which has allowed opportunities for our students that they would not have had before.”  Cryan said, however, the district will receive a cut of $268,436.  “It’s going to get more frugal and we are going to run into this as our economy finds its way back from this awful virus.”

In response to a question about whether schools will open this summer to ESY and special needs students, Repollet ESY will “most likely be remote, although we want to advocate to have small group learning to occur in school.” 

About social distancing and what schools may look like in September, Repollet said they are working closely with the Department of Health.  “We are also looking at the square footage of a room, trying to see how many kids can be in a room X size. “  He said at this time he cannot answer the question about whether students will be required to wear masks.