Return to School Guidance Released – Significant Challenges Remain

Posted by Dr. Richard Bozza, NJASA Executive Director on 7/1/2020

Governor Murphy introduced “The Road Back - Restart and Recovery Plan for Education, the guidance for schools reopening prepared by the NJ Department of Education during his Friday, June 26 press conference. He declared that schools will open in September for in-person instruction, providing options to local districts to craft the way they will resume that instruction. The guidance, totaling 104 pages, relies heavily on the Center for Disease Control Guidelines, providing numerous resources to assist New Jersey educators in the arduous task of creating reopening plans that must be publicly announced one month prior to the start of the school year. 

 

Most NJASA members believe that the social distancing requirements of the guidance point to a hybrid approach to schooling in September for most districts. Pupils can be in the buildings for some period, but not full time due to space restrictions. The report itself describes various alternative schedules that might be considered. District and school level planning teams that include constituent representatives must assemble to provide input to the school reopening plans. 

 

The NJDOE guidance provides a set of standards and structural guidelines that school opening planning can, and must, be based upon. Yet, many questions have arisen and will continue to do so as district leaders accelerate the planning initiatives already undertaken. The minimum health requirements of the guidance, as well as the optional measures that districts might implement, will burden already reduced FY 20/21 school budgets. Other recommendations are similarly taxing on district resources, both human and capital. Meeting the professional development recommendations alone during the summer and school year seems an insurmountable task. The state legislature is now adopting a spending plan for the months of July, August, and September that confirms district reductions even before the full impact of the pandemic on state revenues is understood. Reduced tax and fee collections portend additional cuts to the state aid now committed to districts for the fiscal year. 

 

Significant challenges beyond health and finances remain to be addressed even with the new guidelines. 

 

  • Will schools have the human resources to meet the demands of the hybrid model that is chosen?
    • Early parent and staff surveys indicate a reluctance by many students and school personnel to return to in-person schooling.
    • Senior staff members in many locales are contemplating retirement as they assess the health threats they might face on return to work.
  • Will school buses and drivers be available to undertake the additional bus routes that will be required to transport students?
  • Will the necessary personal protective equipment, disinfectants, shields, etc. be available?
  • Will co-curricular and athletic activities be conducted as previously expected?
  • Will districts conforming to the minimal health guidelines be immune to legal challenges when infections occur among pupils and staff?
  • Will parents be able to adjust childcare and at-home instruction requirements of hybrid schooling while returning to work as restrictions are lifted?
  • Will teachers and support staff reasonably be able to meet the additional demands of hybrid programming?
  • Will collective bargaining agreements require modification under the new schooling regimen?

 

There are many more unanswered questions that arise as significant developments in the Covid-19 infection are occurring. Governor Murphy announced as I am writing this article that the plan to reopen inside restaurant dining is rescinded due to the spread of the disease in other states and the disregard by many state residents of the social distancing requirements. Arizona, Florida, and Texas are rolling back reopening activities as they are becoming the latest epicenters for the disease after loosening restrictions.  

 

We refer to the “summer recess” for the months of July and August in the school calendar. An underwhelming label for a period when so many student programs, staffing, training activities, and school opening preparations are being undertaken!  Looking forward, there will not be any “recess” at all this year. Only overtime planning and implementation as the new school year races toward us.