With daily reports of schools’ reopening plans being dashed by new COVID-19 cases, there is no time like the present for New Jersey to seek creative solutions based on the best practices of other states. The University of North Carolina (UNC) is one such school whose plans were upended. UNC was open for only one week before closing after a coronavirus outbreak spread rapidly across campus. North Paulding High School in Georgia was another forced to close soon after a video of students, most without masks, in an overcrowded hallway went viral and nine students tested positive for the virus. The latter case opened up a Pandora’s box, not just of health and safety concerns, but of First Amendment rights, as school administrators instructed students not to post pictures and commentary online.
Further north, the closing of schools due to the pandemic in New Jersey in mid-March left a host of policy problems in its wake: food insecurity for students and their families whose only hot meal came from the school cafeteria or who took home backpacks filled with boxed or canned food items; approximately 230,000 students without access to tablets or the internet; and the cessation of child care for parents who continued to work. Parents became virtual home-schoolers overnight while balancing work demands, and parents of students with individualized education plans (IEPs) faced additional difficulties. Without warning or preparation, teachers were forced to move their classes to online-only versions for the students – those students who actually logged-in for class. Attendance was a problem in certain districts like Newark, as internet access was spotty and students with jobs were forced to work hours that now overlapped with schooling. College students suddenly vacated campuses leaving dorm rooms empty and administrators wondering how to support refunds for prepaid room and board and other expenses that are necessary to meet the demands of operating costs.
With the start of the 2020-2021 school year right around the corner, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and the Department of Education have left the choice open to the State’s 600-plus school districts to determine whether or not they will reopen for in-person instruction as long as they can meet the State’s health and safety criteria. While some school districts such as Lakewood have decided to reopen for in-person learning, others have opted for a hybrid of in-person and digital learning, and still others, such as Montclair, have adapted on the fly as news that the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the largest education association in the State, was against reopening immediately after Labor Day, and the new superintendent Jonathan Ponds recognized that the ventilation in some of the school buildings was not up to the task of handling the “new normal.”
Similar last-minute adjustments to plans made over the course of this past month are being implemented in some of the largest districts throughout the State as they pivot to online-only instruction. Regardless of the districts’ plans, Murphy has allowed all parents and caregivers the flexibility to decide whether or not to send their children back to school based on what their consciences and circumstances dictate, a decision fraught with uncertainty from the moment non-walkers board the bus. The choice has become increasingly difficult as the news spread this week that school-age children are contracting a rare inflammatory disease associated with the coronavirus and New Jersey ranks among the three hardest-hit states.
Fortunately, private equity pioneer Steve Klinsky has offered the parents of high school, college, and returning students another option as the wait for a coronavirus vaccination continues. Together with Pulitzer Prize winning author David Vise, a senior advisor at Klinsky’s New Mountain Capital, Klinsky formed the Modern States Education Alliance. Modern States is a non-profit dedicated to making a high-quality education more accessible and affordable.
Modern States’ first program, “Freshman Year for Free,” is a philanthropic venture enabling students to earn up to one year of college credits without tuition or textbook expenses. Klinsky, serving as CEO, and Vise as Executive Director, chose professors with expertise in their fields from schools such as Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and Rutgers University to teach thirty core courses via video, and provided lectures, textbooks, tests, quizzes, and other features. Using these online materials, students study for the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests issued by the College Board, and Modern States includes a voucher for the cost of the exam. To date, more than 235,000 students have enrolled in these courses, upwards of 30,000 students have had their CLEP exams paid for by Modern States, and 2,900 colleges and universities accept these CLEP credits, adding up to a tuition savings of $45 million, without any taxpayer dollars having been spent.
Recognizing the benefits, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas have become affiliated with Modern States. In January 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a partnership between Empire State, SUNY and Modern States. New Yorkers now have free access to a library of college-level courses at no cost to the state or students. In New York City in July, Modern States officially launched NYC x Freshman Year for Free designed for the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022, whose educations were interrupted this spring, to remain on the path to college. High school students who take eight courses and pass the exams automatically earn up to a year of college credit for free. These students are provided with online tutoring and mentoring, and to further incentivize them, Modern States is giving them $150 simply to take a course and pass the corresponding CLEP exam. Six-hundred-plus high school students from twenty-three schools are participating already, with The Carnegie Foundation as a major supporter. Just last week in Michigan, State Representative Ben Frederick (R-85) announced that Modern States has committed to paying for 10,000 CLEP exams for residents. Program participants’ sole responsibility is to take Modern States courses and pass the exam. This partnership will help the State achieve its goal of “Sixty by 30” – increasing the number of working-age adults with a certificate or college education to 60 percent by 2030.
While Modern States (and this former professor) believe that no substitute exists for in-person instruction, solutions such as Modern States’ program do exist and they are garnering national attention. Michelle Singletary, who shares personal financial advice in her nationally syndicated Washington Post column “The Color of Money” has written a number of articles suggesting that students take advantage of this cost-effective program. At a time when in-person instruction is uncertain and New Jersey is still securing internet access and acquiring tablets for about 90,000 students that lack access to them, these courses can be completed via mobile phone. Vise points out that Modern States was “built for a moment like this.” Now is the time to explore options such as these and implement them at the State level here in New Jersey.
Rebecca Lubot holds a Ph.D. in political and legal history from Rutgers University – New Brunswick, a M.Sc. in the theory and history of international relations from The London School of Economics, and graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in political science from Boston University. She worked on policy issues including education for the Domestic Policy Office of the Vice President, New Jersey State Senator John Girgenti, and United States Senator Frank R. Lautenberg. Dr. Lubot spent a decade teaching history to undergraduates at Rutgers-Newark, and taught the American Government course for the Modern States Education Alliance. Her work has been published in the Fordham Law Review Journal and Politico Magazine.