Essex County teachers, including the Montclair Education Association, say it’s unsafe to open schools in September. Now three New Jersey lawmakers said Wednesday they plan to introduce legislation to require school districts to keep their buildings closed and offer only remote instruction for the new school year.
Out of concern for the health and safety of students, teachers and their families while New Jersey continues to grapple with COVID-19, Assembly Democrats Mila Jasey, Pamela Lampitt and Joann Downey plan to introduce legislation to require school districts to provide virtual or remote instruction during the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.
“The reality is the pandemic isn’t over. School is set to begin in just a few weeks, and it is not clear that a safe and comfortable environment can be maintained for students and staff,” said Jasey (D-Essex, Morris), chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. “As a former Board of Education member and a public health nurse, I understand that New Jersey has made strong progress in combating COVID-19, but reopening schools for in-person instruction would feel like a step backward at this time.”
Under the proposed bill, public schools would begin the 2020-2021 school year with solely virtual or remote instruction, with the exception of special education and related services that must be delivered in person.
The proposed bill states that beginning October 31, 2020, reopening schools for in-person instruction would be evaluated on a monthly basis by the Governor, in consultation with the Commissioner of Education and the Commissioner of Health. Reopening would be contingent upon a number of factors, including New Jersey’s phased reopening and public health data on the spread of COVID-19. School districts would develop guidelines and plans for in-person instruction that adhere to public health guidance.
Additionally, under the proposed measure, school districts may delay the start of the 2020-2021 school year by up to two weeks from the district’s regular start date. If a district chooses this option, it must conduct professional development for teachers on delivering virtual or remote instruction.
“We’ve heard from school administrators, medical professionals, educators, students, and parents on school reopening, and the common sentiment being expressed is the same – our schools lack the guidance and support needed to safely reopen,” said Lampitt (D-Camden, Burlington), chair of the Assembly Education Committee. “In-person learning, without a doubt, produces the best educational outcome for students and we are all eager to return to the classroom. However, until we can ensure the safety of our students and school staff, we must focus our efforts on how we can enhance remote and virtual learning to provide students with the highest quality education possible.”
“No one can deny the benefits of in-person instruction, especially for our younger students. However, the safety of our children must always come first,” said Downey (D-Monmouth), chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee. “We also must keep in mind our valued teachers, many of whom have health concerns or fear bringing the virus home to their families. We can’t predict how the virus will impact New Jersey this fall, but we do know it will likely be complicated by flu and allergy season. For the safety of all, our best course of action is to focus our efforts on improving remote instruction, closing the digital divide and keeping our students safe.”
Also, under the bill, school districts may hold outdoor events for students, teachers and parents to meet one another and foster relationships during the remote learning period. These events must comply with State and federal health and safety guidelines for COVID-19.