District and Charter Leaders Find Common Ground in Bucking DOE/Murphy Mandate For In-Person Instruction

It only took a pandemic for officers at the New Jersey Education Association to reach consensus with leaders of NJ’s charter school sector: Requiring some element of in-person learning starting on September 8th is unrealistic and dangerous for students and staff members.

This common ground (also see here) is in direct opposition to the Department of Education guidance jointly issued by Governor Phil Murphy and then-Commissioner Lamont Repollet called “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education.” While Murphy has since issued a series of “clarifications” — two weeks ago he said districts must offer all parents the option of full-time remote instruction and this past Monday he said all students must wear masks, barring a specific health condition — the original guidance’s mandate that says “all districts’ reopening plans must account for resuming in-person instruction in some capacity” remains unchanged.

Such a cavalier approach disregards the most recent calculation that New Jersey’s R-naught number is at 1.32, which means every three people with the virus are spreading it to four others. Lawrence Kleinman of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University says schools shouldn’t open with an R-naught number larger than 1.0. He told NJ Spotlight, “to crush the curve is to have the transmission rate close to zero, not just lower than one.”

The backlash against the DOE’s blithe guidance about the extraordinarily complex exercise of implementing in-person schooling started a while ago. On June 8th Repollet told the Senate Education Committee that schools need to “get creative” and shouldn’t “need guidance on basic operational things;” according to Politico, superintendents responded with “outrage.” As opening day approaches and leaders contemplate exactly how this is supposed to work, distrust and criticism continues unabated, regardless of public school governance.

Patricia Wright, Executive director of New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association:

Ambiguous health and safety “guidelines” [from the DOE] provide, what we believe, is a dangerous level of flexibility in an area where educators are not the experts —  public health. Science, not funding, staffing or the ability to secure PPE, should determine what needs to be in place to ensure maximum safety. Our students should not be subject to inequity in the level of health safety they receive at school by virtue of their zip code…It is in this context that the NJPSA has reached the conclusion that New Jersey schools should begin the 2020-2021 school year virtually.

 Marie Blistan, NJEA President:

We are still the only country in the world trying to reopen schools when the numbers are increasing…It’s not plausible if you want to have health and safety.

Harry Lee, President of the New Jersey Public Charter School Association (via email):

Public charter schools will be the first public schools to open in the State of New Jersey. Many charter schools have longer school years and begin educating students weeks earlier than traditional district schools. In fact, more than 30 charter schools are starting the 2020-2021 school year prior to Labor Day. It is imperative that the safety of students and staff guide our decision making every step of the way. In some instances, personal protective equipment (PPE) shipments have been delayed, and teacher and parent concerns have been elevated in recent days and weeks. While our schools will be ready to do whatever is required for the health and safety of their students, teachers and families, having the option to open remotely is a necessary tool to help them make decisions that work best for their community.

Ryan Hill, CEO of KIPP NJ:

As the summer has progressed and more research on the transmission of COVID-19 among children has come in, we think the risks are still too high to go back into in-person instruction right now. We have learned a lot about remote instruction since the spring and believe we can make it work well for our students.

Steve Baker, Director of Communications for NJEA:

“What you are seeing is a continued growth of concerns as we get close to the start of school. There is a growing concern about how schools could open safely in September.”

What do you think?


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