Op-Ed: New Jersey Schools Must Fully Open in September

This is a guest post by Sam Cole,a life-long resident of New Jersey.  He is the Co-Founder and a Managing Principal of Stonecutter Ventures LLC.  He is also the Chairman of the NYC Governing Board of Trustees of Success Academy Charter Schools.  The views expressed above are entirely his own and do not reflect those of NJLB.

In less than two months, schools across New Jersey should be opening, but you’d never know it given the silence from Governor Murphy and the state’s public education apparatus. While inconsistent leadership has characterized the Governor’s handing of the crisis, “no leadership” more accurately describes the schools issue. Departing Commissioner of Education, Lamont Repollet, has postponed fall opening decisions and superintendents of the state’s more than 550 school districts plead for guidance but themselves offer no answers. The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and the NJ Association of School Administrators (NJASA) defaulted to an “all virtual” restart as early as May, all while the families of the state’s more than one million school children sit waiting. Those families deserve leadership, and answers, and no one seems to have any.

This should be one of the easiest decisions the Governor will ever have to make. Opening the schools— on time and in full—is not only a moral, social, and economic imperative, it also has the virtue of being the only rational option given what we now know.

Your kids will be safe in school.  COVID-19 is less harmful to school-age children than the seasonal flu.  Kids can get sick, but severe illness is unusual.  Of the 148,152 Americans who have died from the virus since February 1st, some 23, or .02%, were 1-14 years of age, according to CDC data.  In this same period, 86 children, or more than three times as many, died from the flu.  Though influenza is a serious disease, we don’t abandon our schools each year from October through March to avoid it.  

Teachers will be safe.  The risk to most adults is also no greater than in a severe flu season but are heightened if you are 65 or older with serious health issues.  The CDC data indicates that 80% of those who have died from COVID-19 were 65 years and older.  Moreover, Studies from Europe suggest that adults are actually much more likely to transmit the virus to children than the reverse.  That said, if you’re a teacher who is over 65 and has a severe underlying condition, you may want to consider retiring or remote teaching classes from your home, if possible. As businesses have been closed for our safety so too will the state’s education workforce need to make some accommodation for our children’s education.

You can’t open the economy without fully opening schools.  Since most workers are not able to work from home, kids need to return to school so parents can return to work.  Otherwise jobs will be lost, incomes will drop, and school budgets will be further squeezed at the worst possible time. This is a death spiral that must be prevented. Keeping our kids out of school this fall will put the final nail in New Jersey’s economic coffin while further undermining our children’s education.

That our children must go back to school on time and in full is irrefutable. We know this is possible as child care centers serving the children of essential workers have been open since April 1, with no reports of outbreaks of two or more cases.  We also know that remote learning has been an unmitigated disaster for many New Jersey children and especially for the poorest among us, 90,000 of whom still don’t have internet access or a device to participate in remote learning.  Imagine a fall without in person instruction after six months without real schooling.  Imagine the lack of sports, extracurriculars, and socialization.  Experts already expect clinical depression among children to escalate sharply.  

As for K-12, in the absence of any answers from Trenton or the leadership of the state’s education establishment, let me offer the following guidance.  Schools will need to have a remote option for kids and adults who will not be able to do in-person instruction.  Have parents conduct brief surveys in the morning, attesting to their child’s health.  If there is a temperature, keep the child home and get him or her tested for COVID-19.  If positive, keep at home for the requisite two weeks and have the child remote in to class.  If a child has a temperature at school, send him or her home and repeat the above.  If a child is living with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, have the child remote into class for 2 weeks.  Six feet distancing and masks are entirely incompatible with creating a favorable learning environment.  Superintendents should focus on implementing the above in the summer, but also be given sufficient latitude during the fall and winter to call “audibles” in response to changing conditions.  

As a state, we’ve lost so much in lives and wealth, and now our children’s educations stand to be the next COVID-19 casualties. We can prevent that, but we need leadership at the top.  Now.  Our state and our children deserve that.

Open the schools on time and in full

What do you think?

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