Schools Should. Open.
That message came through loud and clear from Governor Phil Murphy last week when the state released a long-awaited guide to reopening more than 2,500 public schools.
But what exactly will the socially distant school be like this fall?
How many new rules are coming?
And how long can we expect schools to remain open before the coronavirus strikes again?
Responses will vary among the more than 500 districts in the state, which were essentially given minimum requirements and offered maximum flexibility to start running.
Schools should develop their restart plans in the coming weeks. Here are 10 key questions that they are trying to answer.
The orientation of the state has to do with the options. How many students can return to school buildings is one of them.
Districts may reopen to normal capacity. But unless those schools have a lot of extra space, it will mean compulsory covering of the face and sacrificing social distancing.
School leaders have been developing plans to determine the maximum number of students that can fit while maintaining social distance. And it just won’t work for many of them.
“I really believe that people want to try to appeal to all the children,” said Tony Trongone, superintendent of Pemberton Township Schools. “With social distancing, at six feet, you can’t do that.”
The state orientation allows schools to drop social distancing requirements as long as students wear face covers.
But some districts are already erring on the side of caution. They are preparing for split schedules instead of trying to get all the students to sit together again.
Many parents are desperate for their children to go back to school. And the American Academy of Pediatrics has emphasized a long list of benefits for children returning to the classroom.
But some students have medical reasons to stay home, and schools know that other families will not be ready to return until there is a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I know families who are still really home,” said Cathy Lindenbaum, president of the New Jersey PTA. “We can’t say to those families, ‘You’re wrong.’ How can we do that? We really don’t know enough about this disease.”
The state guide does not detail whether parents can choose not to have their children attend school in person if they are uncomfortable with the risk of COVID-19 infection. But state Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet said school districts will have flexibility to meet the needs of their students.
“We hope that district leaders do not penalize students and parents who choose to use a remote level,” said Repollet.
Schools must find the best way to incorporate those students into their plans.
Should virtual-only students be in the same class as students who attend both virtual and face-to-face classes? Or should schools create a virtual third grade section taught by a teacher?
Much will depend on exactly how many students stay home.
The state’s largest teachers union has insisted that high-risk staff members should be allowed to work from home.
But what about a teacher or staff member who lives with an older person or high-risk spouse? And how many healthy employees will ask to stay home as a precaution?
“We have many members who are not comfortable, even with the guidelines, without a vaccine,” said Anthony Rosamilia, president of the Essex County Education Association.
Districts will have to make decisions about who will work from home, and it will be difficult to please everyone, said David Rubin, a lifelong school board attorney. The question is one of “a Disney world of legal affairs” that schools should consider, he said.
“The handbook encourages districts to adapt to people, perhaps even beyond their legal rights,” said Rubin. “How do you draw that line without others feeling like they are carrying other people’s weight?”
One district, Mount Olive Township, has already said it plans to handle those requests on a case-by-case basis.
However, no district can have a final plan for the reopening until it knows how many teachers are working from home, Trongone said.
“Hopefully, teachers who are medically engaged are consistent with students who are medically composed, so that they can teach those children,” said Trongone. “It is just a Jenga puzzle.”
Highland Park Public Schools officials were so convinced that the state would require covering their faces that they have already purchased three reusable masks for each student, Superintendent Scott Taylor said.
Then came the surprise: face covers are “strongly encouraged”, but not mandatory as long as social distancing is observed, according to state orientation.
Now Taylor is concerned that schools may enter the national health and political debate about masks.
“You know how it is with all these communities making different decisions,” he said. “There will be pressure to do what the neighboring community will do when it comes to children wearing masks.”
Teachers should wear face covers, and Taylor believes it would be safer if students also wear them, he said. But the district has yet to make a final decision.
One-way corridors. Masks about teachers. Social distancing on buses.
The new rules in schools will be broad and broad, which raises a critical question.
“How is that enforceable?” Asked Patricia Wright, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Directors and Supervisors. “What does that look like? What policies should be developed?
But beyond preventing first graders from touching, broader questions about law enforcement persist.
Who monitors school districts to make sure they follow the guidelines? And how much power does the state really have to compel districts to comply?
“It is a manual,” Rubin said of the 104-page guidance document. “What is your legal position is a question in itself.”
From teacher masks to extra hand soap and plexiglass dividers, schools are looking at a growing stack of bills to open their doors.
The average American school district, with approximately 3,600 students, will need to spend an additional $ 1.7 million next school year due to COVID-19 precautions, according to a projection by the National Association of School Superintendents.
“The words ‘unfunded mandate’ come to mind when you look at a lot of the things that are required,” Rubin said.
The state is giving schools flexibility by using reserve funds and money from the Federal CARES Act, which should help districts with unforeseen expenses.
But that has not removed significant concerns among some school leaders, especially since it is not known when schools can return to normal.
“The CARES money seems to be a panacea,” said Trongone. “’The money from the CARES Law will take care of this. The money from the CARES Law will take care of that. That could be the solution for a year. What happens the year after that?
The state guide says schools should work with the local health department and school nurses to use contact tracking to identify anyone who has been in contact with people with COVID-19.
But several superintendents have said that is completely out of their wheelhouse.
“I’m a little concerned that contact search applies to local districts rather than the state,” said Robert Beers, superintendent of Manville Public Schools. “I think there has to be some kind of protocol and structure on that, whether it’s county, state, federal, and what our best practices should be.”
And some schools have already heard complaints about possible invasions of privacy if the school is tracking student and staff activities.
“You know, they want to see who they’re interacting with, how long you’re interacting with them,” said Thomas Smith, superintendent of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District. “Who does that fall on?”
Who will track will likely vary from district to district.
At Mount Olive, the district is recruiting some staff members to take a three-hour online certification course through Johns Hopkins University, Zywicki said.
Even before Gov. Phil Murphy ordered all schools closed in March, many districts were already temporarily closed due to COVID-19 exposure among students and staff.
With the virus still circulating (and cases on the rise in other states), it could be only a matter of time before districts are forced to deal with coronavirus cases again.
So what causes a shutdown? And for how long?
“I have to be honest with you,” said Taylor. “We haven’t crossed that bridge yet.”
Highland Park plans to speak with an infectious disease expert to coordinate plans for various levels of student or staff exposure to the virus, he said.
Sure, schools can reopen. But teachers are concerned that the friendly learning environments students left behind in March won’t return until there is a cure.
“Will students, especially youth, feel safe?” Rosamilia said. “I think it is a great question. I know that is what my members are asking. It’s going to be very difficult under those conditions for learning. “
Beyond implementing safety measures, schools must make a massive effort to assess students’ mental health.
Highland Park is already starting that project with a special program for small groups of students this summer, Taylor said.
It remains to be seen if the state can reopen shops and restaurants and contain the virus. The governor has already delayed the reopening of restaurants for indoor dining.
So schools are also preparing for the possibility that their doors will remain closed if the health landscape changes.
They need to improve remote education, Lindenbaum said, because parents will expect more than when virtual learning ended in June.
“Hopefully there won’t be a next time,” he said. “But if we have to close again, I think we will know more about the problems here and we can fix it.”
NJ Advance Media Staff Writer Sophie Nieto-Muñoz contributed to this report.
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Will children be able to learn?