Breaking News: Six Rumors From NJ Education Department Include Extended School Closures, Lack of Guidance, and Mandatory Furloughs.

Jeez, you leave for one week and all hell breaks loose. Just kidding. Or not. Last night I came home from a week away with my husband and all our kids to a host of rumors from the New Jersey Department of Education and Governor Murphy’s Office. I am printing the ones that have been confirmed by two independent sources who will, of course, remain anonymous. As always, I can’t do this work without the brave staff members who step forward. Any additional information, please email me at [email protected] com or [email protected]

Number One: All DOE employees — or at least those who are members of the CWA union (Communications Workers of America) —have been ordered to take a two-week furlough. In effect, the DOE is shutting down for two weeks. One of the weeks must be July 20th-July 25th and the other week must be the week before (starting this Monday) or the week of July 27th. Staff will collect unemployment as well as the $600 per week in additional pay through the federal CARES Act.

The furloughs only apply to union members. X-98’s (non-union members who hold similar jobs without union protection) and some directors are exempt. (One source told me that those who are exempt is “one of the best-kept secrets” in the DOE.)

This mandatory furlough (furloughs from the DOE are traditionally voluntary and usually happen after budget season) happens to coincide with crunch time for districts to submit reopening plans, due August 1st. Many superintendents are concerned that essential staff members will be unavailable to answer a myriad of questions. Example: If a parent want to send their child to school but not take the bus, is the parent eligible for Aid-in-Lieu-of-Transportation?

Nobody knows.

Another staffer told me that all DOE employees have been instructed to NOT respond to requests for information during the furlough, including questions regarding reopening plans and grant materials.

Number Two: This mandatory furlough also explains why Lamont Repollet has switched his departure date from the DOE from August 1 to July 15th. (Not sure if he’ll start his new gig as Kean University’s president earlier than originally planned.)

Number Three: The rigorous annual accountability reports for NJ’s public charter schools are also due August 1st. There are concerns in the charter community about having access to DOE assistance.

Number Four: The 104-page DOE-issued guidelines for reopening schools in the midst of a pandemic includes this:

In all stages and phases of pandemic response and recovery,
schools must comply with Center for Disease Control (CDC), state, and local guidelines.

However, the CDC says its guidance will be supplemented with “additional reference documents,” that have yet to be issued. Today’s New York Times quotes Carl Bergstrom, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Washington in Seattle: “‘[T]he guidelines are already exceptionally weak.’ He and others said they feared that the recommendations would get watered down even more in response to political pressure.”

How will districts reconcile those unreleased “additional reference documents” with plans they’ve been sweating over without direct support from the DOE? Those who have asked this question directly to DOE managers and directors have received no response. The DOE has also communicated to districts that accountability and liability for safe openings is entirely on districts, not the DOE. The message, I’m told, is “the DOE is not responsible.”

Number Five: While schools will re-open for some version of in-person instruction in September, all state offices will remain closed until January 1, 2021. (Or at least staff will have the option of working from home.)

Number Six: Gov. Murphy is considering closing all schools from Thankgiving through New Year’s.

What else is out there? Unveiling dysfunction at the DOE is a team effort. I can’t do this without you.

Bonus Leak: Letter from Interim Commissioner Kevin Dehmer to DOE staff: (coverage of his appointment here):

Dear Colleagues, 

As newly named Interim Commissioner, I want to, first and foremost, extend my congratulations to Dr. Repollet on starting his new role as President of Kean University. I’m extraordinarily proud to have worked alongside him for the past two and a half years, and I know he will do great things at Kean. As Commissioner, he always reminded us there are 1.4 million children whose future depends on us working as an effective and cohesive team. 

With changes at the Department – and with all the upheaval and uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 global pandemic – these can feel like trying times for us all. Having long served at the Department, I’ve seen New Jersey schools weather our share of tumultuous times. Superstorm Sandy. The H1N1 influenza. Tragic violence in schools. The Great Recession. And every time, we worked together and we emerged stronger in the end. As I told my colleagues at the NJDOE, that’s because we collectively share a steadfast resolve in understanding how each one of us can make a profound difference in the lives of the children we serve. Each day, we’re reminded of the 1.4 million reasons why our work is so important. 

I look forward to guiding the Department through this next chapter, and I thank you for your continued dedication to serving New Jersey’s students. 

Sincerely, 

Kevin Dehmer

Interim Commissioner of Education

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