In a decision that once seemed unimaginable but rapidly became inevitable, Gov. Phil Murphy today ordered all New Jersey schoolsto close by Wednesday in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s a historic response that shatters any remaining sense of normalcy families clung to, as the virus has killed more than 6,500 people worldwide, including two in New Jersey.
About 1.4 million students and 115,000 teachers will stay home. More than 2,500 schools will sit empty. Nobody knows for sure when they will reopen.
“In my decades of experience in education, I have never seen a challenge as complex and profound," state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said.
Yet classes will carry on.
The state will count “home instruction” days toward the 180-day school year, breaking from its protocol for snow days or weather-related emergencies. Most districts already decided to close on their own, either out of precaution or exposure to COVID-19 cases in their community.
Now, students will submit their work online or fill out worksheets. Teachers will check in via online chat or conference calls. Parents, especially those of young students, will scramble for childcare, burn paid time off or work from home while playing the role of part-time teacher.
Unprecedented. Challenging. Far from ideal. Those are all ways educators have described what comes next. And that’s just the daily academics.
School lunch? Special education? Sports? Standardized tests? Paychecks for hourly employees? All could be disrupted in a way schools have never experienced, creating a logistical nightmare for district leaders.
“No one has ever seen this before,” said David Hespe, a former state education commissioner under Gov. Chris Christie. “No one has answers because answers just aren’t capable of being had right now."
Forget the idea of 25 classmates logging onto their iPads at the same time and watching their teacher on screen for six hours a day.
More than 250,000 New Jersey students don’t have a laptop or tablet at home, according to the state. And even some districts where every student can get online aren’t going to be that ambitious.
“I do not think that is realistic,” said Michael LaSusa, superintendent of the School District of the Chathams. “We will have households with multiple kids and multiple adults, all using whatever devices they have to do work.”
Instead, those districts will ask students to go online and check their assignments. Daily tasks will look a lot like homework or independent learning children would do in a classroom, according to plans reviewed by NJ Advance Media.
Students might also spend time in groups chats or video chats with classmates that could resemble a classroom discussion. Teachers will sometimes be available for live discussions, though the method and amount of time will vary.
In districts challenged to get everyone online, students will complete a series of worksheets and reading or writing assignments. Teachers will likely call parents to check in or connect with families via email, if possible.
The format will be different across the state. Students in one community could have an entirely different experience than those in another.
How long will students be busy each day? There’s no set number of hours as long as the time “is sufficient to continue the student’s academic progress,” according to state rules.
More than 200,000 students from low-income families get free breakfast or lunch from their school, and that’s not going to change.
School districts have established local pickup locations where students can get grab-and-go meals, including breakfast, lunch and dinner in some cases. Many districts launched those spots Monday, and some plan to deliver lunches to bus stops.
The governor delayed his closure order until he was sure all districts had a plan for meals, he said.
The state Department of Education told districts they must provide equitable instruction, including appropriate special education services, during home instruction days.
That’s easier said than done.
Some students require intensive, one-on-one support and many students’ individualized education plans don’t allow for remote learning, Hepse said. Districts would have to find a way to provide that instruction or risk violating the plans that outline what services students are entitled to, he said.
The state could intervene by allowing modifications to students’ learning plans, but there are few simple answers. Services might have to be made up at a later date.
“This is probably by far and way the most complicated of all of the issues before the (education) department,” Hespe said.
Pay for hourly employees
Teachers and administrators will continue working, but there are thousands of hourly employees whose services aren’t necessarily required for home instruction.
The state’s largest teachers union already called for districts to continue paying all employees in full for the duration of school closures. But it’s unclear if that will happen.
“That will alleviate the economic concerns of hundreds of thousands of New Jersey families and allow them to focus on protecting their health,” the New Jersey Education Association said in a statement.
Even if schools decide to pay hourly employees, many of them are employed by transportation or food service companies that would make their own decisions.
“Right now, we don’t have all the answers that we need to all these questions,” said Sue Young, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials. “I don’t think that’s unique to New Jersey.”
Some state lawmakers have floated plans for a temporary expansion of unemployment benefits that could potentially help hourly school employees.
Districts began canceling athletic practices when they closed their schools last week, and the status of future events appears dim, considering major sports leagues have suspended or delayed their seasons.
The state canceled the remainder of its high school basketball tournament scheduled for last weekend, and spring seasons were originally scheduled to open between March 25 and April 1, depending on the sport.
When practices resume and whether games are completely canceled or just rescheduled will likely depend on how long schools remain closed.
New Jersey is scheduled to administer state math and English exams in April, an annual requirement under federal law.
If students are back in school by then, there will likely be a call to cancel the exams and use the time to catch up on instruction, Hespe said.
However, there’s also a case for holding the exams to gauge how much students were hurt by the remote learning, he said.
New Jersey is likely to look for federal guidance, which is expected to come considering more than 30 states have already closed schools.
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