Things are COVID-19 tough all over, significantly for school children, who last term tried to stay on track with a wobbly distance learning program that left many insistent on a new plan for schools in the fall. The absence of a vaccine and cure for the virus and worry about a coming cold weather spike have left school officials and labor reps jittery about feeding teachers to the frontlines come autumn, offloading them into a population to date largely (but not totally, by any means) resistant to the most harmful impacts of COVID-19.
Today, the Murphy Administration opted for flexibility in their guidance for local school districts, preferring to punt any command decision to actually cement anyone into a remote distance plan, while ensuring the distance option to the parents and guardians of school kids.
At the War Memorial in Trenton, Kevin Dehmer, Chief Financial Officer and Assistant Commissioner for the Division of Finance at the New Jersey Department of Education, presented a plan for full time remote learning for all students – if their families or guardians wish.
The state’s original intention was for a reopening of schools for in-person instruction. But parents and professionals provided input over the course of the last month, Dehmer said. “We heard what parents and school leaders had to say,” said the assistant commissioner, offering guidelines that provide additional minimum standards.
“Families can choose full-time remote learning,” Dehmer said. “All students are eligible for full-time remote learning.”
Governor Phil Murphy has said all along that parents who want to keep kids home should have that
option. Dr. Zakiya Smith Ellis, chief policy advisor to the governor, offered the following: “This really gives families the option to choose what is best for their child.”
Murphy acknowledged that the coming school year will not be normal.
“It’s going to be a challenge up front,” said the governor. “Since the guidance [last month] was put out… [the state received input]. The guidance is to provide flexibility. We promised we would listen. We listened. And we have added this dimension of flexibility.
“We found the money to provide [the resources] to every single kid,” Murphy added. “That’s a huge difference. Had we not found that money to address the digital divide, we would not be saying what we’re saying today. It is universally available. It’s up for the districts to [add] this dimension to their plans.”
It’s sensitive political terrain for the governor.
The New Jersey Education association (NJEA) is a key ally, and the union wants to protect teachers who would be especially vulnerable in schools that do not absolutely prioritize distance learning. But if Murphy were to shut down schools from his executive perch, he would no doubt be wading onto dangerous political turf.
So today’s flexibility message represented his best attempt at having it both ways and buying a little time ahead of the school year before making a harder declaration. At a bare minimum, it gives school districts and parents a chance to exercise an option that could alleviate some burden on classrooms by allowing children to stay home and learn full time at a distance. That option coupled with hybrid plans to rotate classrooms, enabling some students to learn in school while others stay home on alternating schedules, improves social distancing capabilities, the foundation for fighting the deadly virus.
“Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” Murphy said. “Let’s hope these [COVID-19] flare-ups die down in some of these other states.”
From the Governor’s Office:
Department of Education Issues Guidance Allowing Parents to Choose All-Remote Learning for Their Children
TRENTON – The New Jersey Department of Education today issued clarifying guidance to allow parents to select fulltime remote learning for their children in the 2020-2021 school year.
Released last month, the Department’s guidance document, “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education,” emphasized that schools should prepared plans to open in some capacity for in-person instruction for the 2020-2021 school year. Since its release, the Department received feedback from many parents who wanted a greater voice in the decision-making process of whether their child should return to in-person learning. In addition, officials in some school districts called on the Department to release guidance to specifically allow for all-remote learning for those students.
“My office and the Department of Education are committed to working with our families, educators, and administrators as we navigate the unique challenges that the 2020-2021 school year will bring,” said Governor Phil Murphy. “We will continue to communicate with our districts and will work diligently to find solutions that prioritize the safety of our students and staff. Today’s guidance will allow parents greater flexibility to make the choice they feel best suits the needs of their families.”
“Our initial guidance document was created after holding hundreds of meetings with stakeholders ranging from educators and school support staff to parents, health experts, and more,” said Kevin Dehmer, Interim Commissioner of Education. “We anticipated this will be an evolving document, shaped by continued input from stakeholders. Our announcement today is about honoring that commitment to listen to stakeholders.”
The core elements of the guidance issued today include:
- Universal eligibility: All students, including students who receive special education or related services, are eligible for fulltime remote learning if their parent or guardian chooses.
- Policies and procedures: School districts must set clear policies and procedures for families who want fulltime remote learning for their children. School districts also need procedures for students in fulltime remote learning to transition back to in-person services. These procedures should be designed to ensure that families can make necessary arrangements to prepare for their child’s transition, and to help schools maintain continuity of services.
- Communications: School districts must communicate clearly and frequently with families, in their home language, about the availability of this offering and the related procedures.
- Quality of programming: Students participating in all-remote instruction should receive the same quality of instruction that is provided to any other student. In addition, fulltime remote programs must adhere to the same policies and regulations that in-person and hybrid programs follow regarding student attendance and the length of the school day.
- Data reporting: To help the Department evaluate fulltime remote learning, school districts will report data to the Department about student participation in these programs.
The full guidance is available on the Department of Education’s “Restart and Recovery: The Road Back” webpage.