If the Marlins Can’t Control COVID, How Can Schools? Murphy’s “Clarification” Explained

My baseball-fanatic husband just told me that the Yankees-Phillies game tonight was cancelled because 14 members of the Miami Marlins tested positive for coronavirus right after playing the Phillies this past weekend. 

I assume that Major League Baseball has endless funds at their disposal to keep players safe. Teams widened dugouts, practiced social distancing in locker rooms, tested players daily, and wore masks when they weren’t in the field. 

Yet baseball season may be over.

In-person instruction may be too.

This makes Governor Murphy seem a bit prescient. As I reported late Friday, he issued a “clarification” of the New Jersey Department of Education’s guidance (under then-Commissioner Lamont Repollet’s watch) on reopening schools. According to “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery,” issued in mid -June, “[d]istricts’ reopening plans must account for resuming in-person instruction in some capacity.” So Murphy’s backtrack on the in-person piece — districts now have to offer everyone full-time remote instruction —accommodates families who want their kids to learn from home for all or some portion of the 2020-2021 school year and acknowledges the reality that some families won’t take the risk of sending their kids into school buildings. 

Also, the DOE’s original plan was widely blasted by district superintendents for “lack of concrete guidelines,” failure to address additional costs associated with retrofitting school buildings, anticipated teacher union resistance, lack of “collaboration with superintendents in the field,” and just being plain “insulting” for school leaders who want to find a way to most effectively keep students on track while we wallow through a pandemic.  

I’m sure many of us, including me, salute the Governor’s understanding of conditions on the field.

But this new guidance leaves school leaders with additional dilemmas as they try to conform to the new guidance and rework their plans, due in one week, to a Department of Education that has proven less than adept at performing basic functions

Murphy’s clarification says this: “Families/guardians may submit, and school districts shall accommodate, requests for full-time remote learning.  A family/guardian may request that some services be delivered entirely remotely, while other services follow the same schedule they otherwise would according to the district’s reopening plan.”  Also, families can switch it up: For example, if they chose remote instruction but started feeling their kids would be safe in schools, they can reverse their request. Same for those who elect in-person instruction: At any time they can choose to go fully or partly remote.  And — here’s the catch — 

A student participating in the board’s fulltime remote learning option must be afforded the same quality and scope of instruction and other educational services as any other student otherwise participating in district programs (e.g. students participating in a hybrid model)….Like in-person and hybrid programs, full-time remote learning must adhere to length of school day requirements pursuant N.J.A.C. 6A:32-8.

This means that districts must magically  rejigger classroom assignments to accommodate differing numbers of students, all while adhering to social distancing guidelines. And for students who learn from home, districts must provide all the instruction they’d get in school.

How will this work? 

No one seems to know.

Maybe it can’t.

Superintendent Rocco Tomazic of the Freehold Borough School District said that 20% of his parents were going to keep their kids home for some or all of the next school year. He told the Asbury Park Press that he’s pleased Murphy has permitted remote instruction because, if he didn’t, parents would disenroll their children and homeschool, which would be a financial hit for an already-underfunded district. Yet he’s got a lot of unanswered questions.

He noted as an example the district’s 170 second-grade students who are in eight classes. That averages about 22 students per class. “What if two out of 170 second graders want virtual?” he asked. “That is difficult. If it is 22 out of 170 that is easier. It works better when it is even and I can round it up to a whole class.”

Neptune Schools Superintendent Tami Crader said 30% of her parents surveyed are not ready to send their children back to the classroom and so offering virtual instruction is sensible. But she said it is “fraught with challenges.”

I recognize that students need to come back for academic and socialization reasons. However, the planning for a group in school while a group is at home and also an all-remote group is monumental…The number of safety precautions we will need to take, including mask wearing and social distancing, will make running schools very difficult. Add to that the number of teachers who will have their own childcare challenges makes this seem very chaotic.

Also, some schools don’t have adequate numbers of nurses, struggle with out-dated ventilation systems, don’t have enough PPE, and — given state aid cuts —are already looking at depleted budgets.

On top of that, as many as 230,000 students —one out of six kids in New Jersey — don’t have internet access, a one-on-one device bigger than a cell phone, or both. (Murphy says he has the money to bridge the digital divide but NJ Spotlight reports that he is counting on “philanthropic support to fill funding gaps.” Regular readers may remember that Repollet told the Legislature that the number of students without necessary technology to learn at home was 89,000, a vast undercount.) 

Then there’s NJEA, which opposes reopening schools. Here’s a statement from the Essex County branch:

The Essex County Education Association cannot, in good faith, support the reopening of public schools for in-person instruction in September. Simply put, despite the best of intentions and planning, the risk to the health and safety of our students and staff is too high.

And here’s NJEA president Marie Blistan in reference to the mothership:

Here’s what I think: First, Murphy read the tea leaves and realized that the DOE’s original guidance, even though it came out six weeks ago, was already outdated. While some parents are eager for their kids to return to school, either because (in the case of students with disabilities and very young children) they prioritize socialization or they have to go to work, other parents won’t take the risk. If enrollment in a NJ public school requires physical presence, then families might start disenrolling. So he changed the guidance to accommodate those families, accepting that most schools will stay closed.

Second, the logistics to reopening are overwhelming: School leaders don’t have the money to reconfigure school buildings, they’re afraid of getting sued if anyone gets sick, too many teachers will stay home, and the difficulties of running both an in-person instructional program along with a heavily-populated remote instructional program are insurmountable. 

Third, while in an ideal world all decisions regarding COVID-19 would be based on science, our current mileau has politicized everything, including epidemiology. Trumpsters want schools to open to protect the economy. Non-Trumpsters, then, want to close schools to protect people.

Anyway, if adult athletes can’t stay safe outdoors, can children and teachers stay safe indoors?

My own view: Best cop to reality. School is going to be virtual at least through the fall; after all, district plans to re-open outside of NJ are falling as fast as a chain reaction of dominoes. 

Twenty-twenty hindsight isn’t fair. But if I ran the the world, after we passed the denial stage of COVID —mid-May?–New Jersey DOE staffers, school leaders, and teachers would have been working together to construct a state-wide robust remote instruction model that would keep our kids in the game.

What do you think?

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