Murphy’s School Reopening Plan Will Open Pandora’s Box, Say New Jersey Superintendents

Last week Governor Murphy and Education Commissioner Repollet gave New Jersey school districts permission to open schools on July 6th for summer programming for students with disabilities as long as they follow the guidance given for opening summer day camps. (See here for detail.) Most NJ superintendents rejected the state guidance and will keep schools closed, relying on remote instruction for Extended School Year (ESY).

After all, these school leaders said, traditional school — indoors with limited ability to social-distance — isn’t summer camp. It’s more complicated. It requires more thought, more preparation, more procedures, more money, all in short supply.

While district leaders expressed concerns about student and staff risk of contracting COVID-19 as well as the state’s presumption that rules for summer camp openings work just fine for in-person instruction for special needs kids, their main concern is liability.

Add this to the additional costs associated with bringing kids back to school buildings, like multiple bus routes, protective equipment, and changes to facilities necessary to hold school during a pandemic. (See, for example, this 100-page toolkit to reopen Brooklyn Lab School, which requires a minimum of three months of preparation.)

Add this to the pending loss of state school aid due to economic downturns.

What you’re left with is a stinking mess.

Then there’s this: If schools can’t safely open for NJ’s 241,000 students with disabilities, how can they open in September for an additional 1.2 million neuro-typical kids? What will be the academic consequences for low-income students, disproportionately Black and Brown, already cheated by a state system focused on looking good instead of doing good?

I don’t have the answers to that. I do have hope that this crisis, currently disrupting a stagnant and dysfunctional system, will lead to changes that will brighten the futures of NJ’s disenfranchised children– 27 point achievement gaps between Black and White students in reading, 38 point achievement gaps between Black and White students in math– who we leave behind each day. So maybe we’ll learn something by probing NJ’s superintendents’ near consensus (Lakewood’s always an outlier) that following Repollet and Murphy’s guidance is a non-starter. That it’s not enough. That this crisis requires more than repurposed instructions for summer day camps.

Remember back in April when news leaked that 30 New Jersey districts were demanding that parents sign waivers before their kids could get access to online special education services during school closures? 

This was all about liability (and, frankly, doesn’t say much about those 30 districts’ therapy sessions if they thought parents would sue them once they had an opportunity to get a firsthand look at their kid’s speech therapy session on Zoom). 

This is all about liability too. But now special needs parents (like me) can’t erupt in righteous anger because…well, the superintendents are right. 

It’s one thing to bar parents from watching their kid’s computer screen.

It’s another thing entirely to be cavalier about a group of students who may not reliably wear masks and are more likely to have compromised immune systems, like students with Down Syndrome. (My son with disabilities said to my daughter yesterday when she came in from an errand, “take that mask off. It looks too scary!”)

Scott Feder, superintendent of the South Brunswick School District, wrote a letter to Murphy  (see full copy below) that speaks for many superintendents.  From the letter (with emphases my own):

Stating that ESY programs can just open on July 6th before proper guidance has even been  considered for the population of students that attend ESY, will cause a multitude of serious and legal problems.

  • Parents will now expect ESY to be in person and when it is not, easily could become litigious.
  • Staff responsible for working in 1:1 situations and in close contact with students may not accept these assignments without proper guidance and outlined safety measures. Therefore prompting a potential litigious situation.
  • For guidance to first be coming on June 15th has placed districts in the crosshairs of families as they are now in a complete scramble, which could cause corners to be cut as districts try to avoid litigious outcomes. Can 580 school districts even acquire the health and safety supplies in time to open safely?
  • Has anyone even assessed the issue with school buses and inspections? Many buses and possibly entire fleets are grounded due to the closure of the DMV and cancellations of all bus inspections. If we were to provide in-person ESY, there are two possible outcomes regarding transportation:
    1. Excessive costs in trying to get a contractor to bid and accept routes with such little lead time (if they even have buses available)
    2. Tell parents they have to transport their own child, even though the summer camp guidance provided speaks to transporting children. Again, a due process claim just waiting around the corner.

Pandora’s box has been opened and each of the nearly 600 school district islands now has a choice, but not really. Face litigation, or put the health and safety of students and staff in jeopardy. We cannot afford either and compromising the safety of students and staff is not a standard to which we can aspire or comply.

Feder is being honest. What happens if a child with sensory defensiveness can’t bear to wear a mask? What happens if an immuno-compromised child catches the virus or a medically-healthy child brings it home to his family? And seriously — are you really going to get little kids, special needs or not, to stay six feet away from each other? 

(Note to Gov. Murphy: Repollet’s decision to stay an extra month as head of the DOE and not take over the Kean University presidency til August doesn’t soothe anyone’s anxiety about this debacle.) 

Look, there’s no question that many children with disabilities are losing academic, social, and therapeutic ground during school closures at a pace that exceeds neuro-typical kids. 

But we have to do better than this. We have to BE better than this. There’s too much to lose. 

This crisis — particularly its impact on education — requires more than tossing pages of instruction intended for camp directors to school leaders. If schools can’t open in September — maybe can’t open for a full year? — we have to reinvent instruction. With nearly 600 districts, why isn’t the DOE leading an all-hands-on-deck effort to scale up effective models? Why aren’t county superintendents gathering their school superintendents together, working out plans that allow our most charismatic English teachers to lead live Zoom sessions for the whole county (the whole state?) while the rest work with smaller groups differentiated by reading level? Why isn’t the DOE going district to district and filling in the cracks of the digital divide, ensuring that every single public school student has broadband internet and a laptop?

What are we waiting for?

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Here’s Superintendent Feder’s full letter:

Dear Governor Murphy,

Today we received “guidance” from the DOE on opening Extended School Year (ESY) programs for after July 6th. However, using the word, “guidance” is truly a stretch. You will notice that the health and safety measures described within were specifically written for youth summer camps. I should not need to say that a summer camp in no way equates to the complexities of an ESY program, which is exponentially compounded by Covid-19 for our medically fragile children that may be attending. Quite frankly, this communicates a lack of understanding and sensitivity to students with special needs and their families. What message does this send to the nearly 600 school districts, 150,000+ educators and families of the 1.4 million students? Even more frightening, is this what we are to expect for September?

Guidance for summer learning cannot substitute for the primary issue at hand – health and safety. Rather than developing health & safety metrics for working with our most medically vulnerable and educationally challenged populations, the DOE has instead chosen to compare running a summer day camp to that of running a safe ESY program. The lack of guidance on all matters these last three months has been eye-opening, yet we managed, as health and safety were taken out of the equation due to schools being closed. However, this recent move in comparing our ESY programs, when it comes to health and safety, to that of a summer camp is not only insulting, but puts the health and safety of our students and staff at risk.

While we are proud to serve some of the most awesome kids in our ESY programs, they are also some of our most needy students and may require any of the following:

  • 1:1 direct support (contact required)
  • Students with language needs that are unable to share when health related symptoms may arise
  • Nursing support services 
  • Disabilities that could inhibit maintaining the summer camp guidance of 6’, or able to wear masks for any period of time
  • Toileting support
  • Require speech, OT and PT, all services that require close contact

In other words, traditional health and safety guidance for a summer camp simply does not apply, 

Stating that ESY programs can just open on July 6th before proper guidance has even been  considered for the population of students that attend ESY, will cause a multitude of serious and legal problems.

  • Parents will now expect ESY to be in person and when it is not, easily could become litigious.
  • Staff responsible for working in 1:1 situations and in close contact with students may not accept these assignments without proper guidance and outlined safety measures. Therefore prompting a potential litigious situation.
  • For guidance to first be coming on June 15th has placed districts in the crosshairs of families as they are now in a complete scramble, which could cause corners to be cut as districts try to avoid litigious outcomes. Can 580 school districts even acquire the health and safety supplies in time to open safely?
  • Has anyone even assessed the issue with school buses and inspections? Many buses and possibly entire fleets are grounded due to the closure of the DMV and cancellations of all bus inspections. If we were to provide in-person ESY, there are two possible outcomes regarding transportation:
    1. Excessive costs in trying to get a contractor to bid and accept routes with such little lead time (if they even have buses available)
    2. Tell parents they have to transport their own child, even though the summer camp guidance provided speaks to transporting children. Again, a due process claim just waiting around the corner.

Pandora’s box has been opened and each of the nearly 600 school district islands now has a choice, but not really. Face litigation, or put the health and safety of students and staff in jeopardy. We cannot afford either and compromising the safety of students and staff is not a standard to which we can aspire or comply.

There may not be any popular decision to be made regarding the reopening of schools, but any decision made that does not first and foremost take into account the health and safety of our most vulnerable students is flat out irresponsible. 

I believe you said it best on Friday, June 12th in a Tweet, “The evidence is overwhelming and the experts are clear: #COVID19 is more lethal inside than outside.” 

How can you make that above statement directly after writing an order to open schools for inside learning for our most vulnerable students beginning July 6th!

Safety has to be our priority and I implore you to reflect on your recent order and the provided guidance as it pertains to the opening of ESY programs beginning July 6th. 

With Regards,

Scott Feder

Superintendent of the South Brunswick Schools

What do you think?

4 Comments

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  2. Avatar Thomas Paine

    It is imperative for schools that provide essential educational and therapeutic services to those children and young adults who are the most needy return to in-person instruction. Simply and bluntly stated, virtual, remote, even sychronous remote teaching through any means, be it Zoom, Google Classroom, telephone, does not work.

    From personal knowledge, in just 3 months of being away from in person schooling, many..indeed a majority ..children and young adults regressed in so many areas without their daily class and therapy room routines provided in person by dedicated professionals who know their students intimately.

    The Lakewood Public School District and the two other NJ DoE licensed and approved private schools for students with disabilities..the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (commonly known as SCHI) and The Center for Education ( which is most times erroneoulsy called Special Children’s Center, which is not a DoE licensed school but rather is under the auspices of the Dept of Health Human Services) are not “experimenting” or being used as ” test sites”.

    Rather, the dedicated and caring staff and administrators of those schools understand the importance of in-person, face to face interactions their students must have. They know the loss of such an educational endeavor to the individual, their families, and to society would be immeasurable for into the future.

    I disagree with those who believe schools and education for any student can be accomplished virtually. I disagree that schools should remain closed to in-person instruction in Sept or until further notice.

    To do so would be an American tragedy far outweighing this pandemic.

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  4. Pingback: Why Are Medically-Compromised Students Going Back to School in a Week? They're Following State Guidelines. - NJ Left Behind

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