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New Jersey Schools Reopen: Pressure Mounts for Delayed Start

by John Mooney, NJ Spotlight

This story is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. Link to story:

A month out from Labor Day, pressure is mounting for a remote-only opening for New Jersey public schools.

The state’s principals and supervisors association last Thursday made a public appeal, including an NJ Spotlight op-ed, for Gov. Phil Murphy to call for virtual-only instruction to start the year.

“Beginning the school year with statewide remote learning recognizes the critical fact that we simply cannot safeguard our students, our staff and our communities from this highly contagious and lethal virus without the necessary tools to do so,” wrote Patricia Wright, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

Charters seek delayed opening: Meanwhile, several of the first charter schools that would reopen—some as soon as this month—have asked for leeway from the state Department of Education as well. One large charter network is looking to push its start date to October.

The KIPP-NJ schools, the state’s largest charter network with 15 schools in Newark and Camden, has asked that it be permitted to stay in virtual-learning mode until October 5.

“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,” said Ryan Hill, KIPP-NJ’s CEO, in an e-mail. “We have learned a lot about remote instruction since the spring and believe we can make it work well for our students.”

And the state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, doesn’t sound too far behind.

“What you are seeing is a continued growth of concerns as we get close to the start of school,” said Steve Baker, the NJEA’s communications director. “There is a growing concern about how schools could open safely in September.”

When asked whether it would formally call for a remote-only opening, like the principals association, Baker said the NJEA’s leadership preferred that local unions lead the effort.

“At this point, we have not made any call,” Baker said.

A close ally of the NJEA, Murphy so far has not backed off much from his call for a reopening of schools that would include at least some form of in-person instruction. The state is now reviewing plans from school districts, the vast majority of them a hybrid mix of in-person and virtual learning.

In her op-ed, Wright, of the principals and supervisors association, said she understands and agrees with the importance of in-person instruction, but she said the reality is far murkier.

“We understand that remote learning raises its own list of challenging issues from the digital divide, to the opportunity losses in learning experienced by many students, to child care concerns of parents needing to return to work,” Wright wrote. “However, even if schools open with a hybrid plan, we still would not have adequately addressed these issues,” she wrote. “If students or staff become ill and schools have to return to fully virtual instruction, these issues remain.”

Giving districts time to adjust: Wright said she hoped the governor would move sooner than later, giving districts the time to adjust.

“By making the decision to return to school remotely now, we can turn our collective creativity and resources to addressing those issues together” she wrote. “The clock is literally ticking and quite loudly.”

The clock is ticking especially fast for charter schools, which have traditionally opened sooner than public school districts. An estimated 30 charter schools planned to open before Labor Day, nearly a dozen of them in August.

The head of the state’s charter school association said many of them are asking the state for some flexibility to open with in-person instruction later in September.

“Schools don’t have their PPE (personal protection equipment) in, there are health concerns from parents and teachers,” said Harold Lee, president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. “Schools just aren’t ready.”