WAYNE, NJ - Governor Phil Murphy and New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) Acting Commissioner Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan on Friday announced “The Road Forward,” a series of coordinated policy initiatives that dramatically expand the Administration’s efforts to identify and address the academic and mental health impacts of COVID-19 on New Jersey students and educators. 

As part of this coordinated initiative, $1.2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds will be made available to districts, including grants dedicated specifically to research-based instructional and mental health interventions. Additionally, the governor and Dr. Allen-McMillan said that the administration is seeking public comment and will submit a request to the U.S. Department of Education (USED) to waive federal requirements to administer statewide assessments this spring.  

“We know our students and educators have had a difficult year,” Murphy said. “Providing our school communities with increased flexibility and support is essential to move our education system forward. The additional federal funds will allow districts to best meet the individual needs of their students during this challenging time.” 

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This same subject was also discussed during the January 14 Wayne Board of Education meeting when Assistant Superintendent Donna Reichman gave a presentation entitled, “Bridging the Gap: Current Intervention Strategies and Future Plans to Support Students.”

RELATED STORY: How Wayne Schools Plans to Help Students Recover Academically

“We know, academically, there are students who are struggling,” said Reichman at the Jan 14 meeting. “Many have had traumatic incidents in their homes; some have faced loss. There had been personal and financial situations for many families that have impacted how students are focusing and feeling each day. It's a challenging time, and it's a scary time for so many.”

All sides seem to understand that this academic year has been very difficult for students and teachers alike, causing lost learning and mental health issues.

“We've yet to fully grasp the level of learning loss and disruption to our children's social and personal growth, but it is critical that we get out in front of this issue as quickly as possible,” said NJ Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee.“We must address the inevitable academic disparities caused by this public health crisis and to do this it will require an investment in learning enrichment programs and increased student mental health support."

Some Wayne parents believe that these initiatives are important, but are not enough.  

"The damage has been done," said Dr. Mario Colletti who is one of the founders of the Facebook Group Reopen Wayne Schools. This is a group of Wayne parents who have organized to influence the Wayne BOE to open schools up full-time for students who want to attend. 

"We can only hope to prevent more damage," he added. "So, trying to remedy the mental health issues and addressing lost learning is a good thing, but I don’t think that should be the full focus. I would l like to see this in tandem with getting the kids back into school."

This group is planning another rally on Thursday before the BOE meeting to push for full time school. 

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How these federal Funds will be made available to school districts 

On March 15, the DOE will release applications for $1.2 billion in federal ESSER II funds (Federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021, Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund). The funds will be distributed as follows:

As required by legislation, a minimum of 90 percent of New Jersey’s ESSER II funds will be allocated to local education agencies (LEAs) in the same proportion as those funds received under Part A of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended, in school year 2020-2021. 

Two grant opportunities will provide a total of $105 million to support districts in providing additional academic and mental health supports.

  • $75 million Learning Acceleration Grant: 75% of a district’s allocation will be used to support research-based academic enrichment activities, such as one-on-one intensive tutoring and summer learning academies, and 25 percent will be used for strategies to support the broader learning ecosystem.
  • $30 million Mental Health Grant: Funds will be used to assist districts in implementing school-based mental health supports for all students and educators. These grants will assist school districts in building a tiered, sustainable intervention model of comprehensive mental health supports and services.

For additional information, including district allocations, see the DOE’s February 19, 2021 broadcast memo.

To assist districts in leveraging these federal funds effectively, the DOE has posted to its website a clearinghouse of successful practices that New Jersey school districts have identified as notable achievements in mitigating the challenges posed by COVID-19. These district-reported successes are categorized by county, district size, and topic area to facilitate meaningful collaboration and learning opportunities between similarly-situated districts. 

Requesting a Statewide Assessment Waiver 

The Administration recognizes that amid the severe disruptions caused by COVID-19, statewide assessments will detract from schools’ efforts to focus on students’ social-emotional health, wellness, and individualized academic and behavioral supports. Thus, the DOE is making available for public comment a request to waive federal requirements to administer statewide assessments this spring, including the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment, ACCESS for ELLs, and the Dynamic Learning Maps alternate assessment for students with the most significant intellectual disabilities.

The waiver request also addresses federal requirements regarding the use of statewide assessments in federal accountability systems. If USED approves this waiver request, the spring 2021 administration of the statewide assessments will be canceled. 

For additional information on this waiver request, please see the DOE’s February 19, 2021 broadcast memo.

Evaluating and Ensuring Student Readiness 

To fill data gaps caused by interrupted statewide assessment administration and to ensure that students are making meaningful growth toward grade-level standards, the DOE will collect data from locally administered assessments that provide a snapshot of student learning during this school year. The DOE will provide additional guidance regarding this data collection later this month. 

In Fall 2021, the DOE will provide all districts with the formative assessment known as Start Strong. Using the lessons learned from the initial administration this past fall, the upcoming and improved Start Strong assessments will better enable districts to collect timely, actionable, standards-based student performance data at the beginning of the school year.  

The DOE will also pilot the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA) this fall. The KRA is designed to be administered to incoming kindergartners, measuring school readiness in the domains of social foundations, language and literacy, mathematics, and physical well-being. Administration of the KRA will provide participating districts with data depicting how prepared their students are for kindergarten. The tool will give educators and families the information needed to adjust, improve, and target teaching and related resources to the needs of their students.

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Jon "Ferris" Meredith contributed to this article.