Murphy Is Losing Key Allies As He Fumbles School Reopening Plans.

It’s a domino effect: Despite Gov. Murphy’s resistance to lengthy periods of online instruction, district after district — 150 at last count—is ignoring him and his “circus-like atmosphere” and going all-remote. At this point, the Governor, widely hailed for his leadership in flattening the curve of coronavirus infection, is looking less like a figure of authority and more like feckless NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, widely panned for a reopening plan that Gov. Andrew Cuomo calls “incomplete” and “indecipherable.”

It’s not really Murphy’s fault, not all of it anyway. He was let down by a rudderless state Department of Education with a Commissioner who InsiderNJ politely calls “a frustration.” He was let down by his own submissive rejection of statewide mandates in this home rule state, even when those directives were desperately needed. (See here and here for details.) Right now someone needs to take his shovel away as he digs himself into a deepening hole while residents, subjected to intensifying uncertainty at a moment when we crave clarity, lose faith in his leadership. (Hint to Murphy: Appoint a permanent commissioner yesterday.)

A few signs of Murphy’s weakened position:

  • Yesterday in Summit teachers held a sit-in to protest the plan for five-days-a-week reopenings, with signs like this one: “I can teach from a distance, but not from a coffin.” In Lakewood, where schools have reopened to great fanfare, the local teacher union issued this statement: “The Lakewood Education Association has reviewed the district’s reopening plan, and we believe firmly that it places our students, our educators and the entire community of Lakewood in immediate harm.” (Yesterday the Asbury Park Press reported that at a funeral for Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller, “hundreds of mourners” gathered in a Lakewood hall with “none of the mourners wearing masks or any other face covering” and standing “inches apart.”)
  • Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, an important political ally of Murphy, said, “At this rate, I wouldn’t send anybody to school.”
  • In the Statehouse, still working remotely, legislators are mourning their failure to pass a law (they ran out of time, according to Senator Teresa Ruiz) that would mandate all-remote instruction statewide, at least through September.  Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt said she was afraid what would happen when flu season hits and the lack of modern HVAC systems. Assemblywoman Mila Jasey said these decisions shouldn’t be left to individual districts: “The law would have given them coverage,” she said in an interview with NJ Spotlight.. “That was the intention.”
  • Senator Ruiz, Chair of the Senate Education Committee and a former pre-K teacher, is particularly concerned (she’s not the only one) about the disproportionately deleterious impact remote learning will have on low-income students. She suggested that “a uniform blueprint early on for all districts could have given low-income communities more time to solve technical problems like the lack of access to laptops and the internet,” adding, “the thing is for our Black and Brown communities, it gets even more projected and more critical, and much larger in that gap because of lack of resources and technology.”

Why make superintendents and school boards and districts go running around in circles as opposed to just saying if you want to use the month of October to go virtual and work out kinks and have mock trial, school-based settings and schedule in-person special ed and do some innovative things that month — why not just allow it? Why create another confused guideline in the middle of what has to be the most turbulent public discussion for personnel, district superintendents and parents.”

Speaking of superintendents, they’re typically loathe to criticize state leaders. Yet many of them are publicly fuming at the lack of meaningful guidance and the Governor’s insistence on “flexibility,” which fails to protect them from liability when, inevitably, someone gets sick.

Freehold Regional Superintendent Charles Sampson criticized Murphy for offering, at such a late date, a temporary all-remote option, “after every district in the state had already submitted their plans, vetted their plans through their school community, received board approval and communicated to all parents.” He explained,

It speaks to the uncoordinated effort at the state level. Leaving these decisions to local districts will pit community against community and turn communities against teachers who may be afraid to return to in-person teaching.

Most significantly, NJEA leaders, in perhaps their first break with Murphy and NJ DOE — until now they’ve won on every issue, including shutting down charter school growth, lowering standards, and erasing accountability — said this to the State Senate,

Respectfully, you and others in elected State positions are charged with the responsibility to open and close facilities for the health and safety of all. You must not allow our children, our students, our colleagues, our communities to be pawns in this unethical “experiment.” We urge you to give our districts the time and resources needed to SAFELY and EFFECTIVELY educate all of our students rather than rushing to an in person start date on a calendar that pretends to be ‘normal back to school.

  • When it was revealed in mid-July that the DOE’s estimate that 90,000 students lacked technology to access remote instruction was actually 230,000, Murphy announced, with great fanfare, his “Three-Pronged Plan To Close Existing Gaps in Student Access to Devices and Internet Connectivity.” (See here for coverage.) The first step was that the NJ Economic Development Authority would issue a Request for Information (RFI), instead of a Request for Proposal (RFP). From the RFI (with its own emphasis): “THIS RFI IS NOT A REQUEST FOR PROPOSAL and may not result in a subsequent RFP or further action.” That’s a signal that there’s really no plan (the questions are SO basic) and the DOE failed to address the largest obstacle to equitably providing online learning. Also, the amount of money offered by Murphy to close the digital divide–$54 million–is not nearly enough. Senator Teresa Ruiz commented, “I’ve been screaming from the mountain top about the ‘Digital Divide’ since the second week of the pandemic when schools closed. In some cases, they’re listening, but I think they’re listening a little too late.”

I can find no further action on the tri-pronged plan touted by Murphy. If anyone has information, please share in the comment section. See here for a Newark mom’s story of how the digital divide affects her and her two children.

Murphy is stuck. Everyone knows that remote learning during the spring was a disaster. Everyone is fearful that the fall will be no better. In this context, Murphy and the DOE’s “flexibility” is a synonym for “lack of leadership.”

Our kids, teachers, parents, and school leaders deserve better.

What do you think?

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