Within the next two weeks, school districts across New Jersey will be reopening in some way, shape or form. And while every district's plans will, no doubt, look different, one thing is the same from High Point to Cape May: this is a hot mess.
In March, you gave us a clear directive to prepare for 100% virtual teaching until the end of that month. Educators across the state rose to the challenge as you very sensibly guided us through the rest of the school year one month at a time, checking the spread of the Coronavirus and its impact on our state's population. During that time, we were able to hone our skills and fine-tune our plans to deliver the very best virtual curriculum we could. We were proud of what we were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time, and I personally was so proud to count my governor, whom I supported from the get-go, right up there with Gov. Andrew Cuomo as one who took this pandemic seriously and took decisive steps to contain it despite the heavy criticism you faced. You did it right and your efforts paid off.
But as spring rolled into summer, the numbers started to rise—especially in children. Just last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that "children and teenagers account for a growing share of coronavirus cases in Camden and Gloucester Counties, mirroring a national — and ominous — trend as young people rebel against social distancing rules, health experts say."
Over the past few months, administrators, boards of education, community members and staff in every district have been working diligently on reopening plans (I was proud to serve on my district's reopening committee), the logistics of which often resembling a Rube Goldberg concoction. But now, with mere days until students arrive, many districts are ditching those plans and going 100% virtual—mine included—leaving parents and staff in the lurch as we all scramble to figure out how we are going to make it work in our homes and in our classrooms. Many districts have cited any or all of the following as their main stumbling blocks to reopening:
- Back ordered PPEs
- Inadequate HVAC systems and lack of air conditioning in many schools
- Many classrooms without windows or operable windows
- Inadequate classroom space to properly social distance
- Students having to eat in their classrooms
- Inability to social distance students on busses
- Staff members who are at high risk requesting medical leaves
- Shortage of substitutes to fill those positions
- Proper accommodations for students with special needs
- Available staff to properly clean buildings at the end of the day
- Inability of staff to clean equipment and certain classrooms in between classes
All of that costs money—which is in chronically short supply in many districts. Add to that the staggering cost of providing electronic devices to every student for home use, and a hybrid model just doesn't make sense. Where is this money supposed to come from? This is arguably the most expensive unfunded mandate ever imposed on schools.
Parents need to go back to work, children need to go back to school, teachers want to go back to school, but we cannot let the abject failure of leadership in Washington force us into reopening for in-person instruction when it is clearly not safe to do so. Yes, there will be learning loss, but what is the alternative? Is spreading this virus and risking the lives of more people worth that cost? If restaurants cannot be open for indoor dining, if gyms are still closed, if many businesses are still operating remotely, how can you, in good conscience, expect schools to reopen for in-person learning? Have you ever been in a kindergarten or preschool classroom? Do you know how much time teachers spend teaching those little ones about personal space, personal hygiene and keeping their hands to themselves? As you did in the spring, you must put the health and welfare of our students and staff above all else. New Jersey has come so far in beating back this menace. You can't ease up.
I am urging you to order all New Jersey schools to go to virtual instruction for at least the first two months of the school year with a plan to reassess at the end of October. During that time, I ask that you work with the state board of education to develop SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely) goals, based on CDC recommendations, for every district to ensure we are doing everything we can to protect the health of our students and staff.
Please, don't let New Jersey slide backwards. We can't afford to mess this up.