Some school superintendents are voicing frustration with what they call a lack of state guidance on a safe return to classrooms as New Jersey remains stalled in Phase 2 of its pandemic reopening.

Initial guidance issued in late June had suggested the wearing of face coverings by students, while requiring it for educators and school staff.

On Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that masks would be a requirement at all times for students with limited exceptions.

The same day, the state Department of Education website posted a checklist with at least 12 sections as “Anticipated Minimum Standards detailed in the NJDOE’s ‘The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education’.”

“A checklist after most plans have been submitted is obviously problematic,” Freehold Regional Schools Superintendent Charles Sampson said in a written response to New Jersey 101.5.

“The full mask at all times inside will require many districts to rethink their original plans that have, in many cases, already been submitted and approved by local Boards.”

South Brunswick Schools Superintendent Scott Feder pointed out a lack of mask requirements last month, in a tweet about the state’s guidance to districts.

“104 pages of DOE guidance & nowhere is a mention of proactive testing? Add that DOE gave definitive language that students do not need to wear masks in classrooms! Do educators and students not have the same right to health & safety precautions?”

On Wednesday, Murphy said he has sympathy with school superintendents and hoped they realize “we’ve never gone through this before,” adding “there’s no playbook” and that “facts do evolve.”

“We’re trying to work as constructively as possible with all the stakeholders in all the districts around the state,” Murphy said.

The state DOE’s June guidance notes that "reopening is dependent upon health data and informed by experts in the health field" and that "districts will need to be prepared to pivot to remote instruction at any time during the 2020-2021 school year."

Murphy said the state had been asked by some school administrators to come up with a checklist for schools to review and that they also were “asked to clarify face coverings” and “begged by many to close the digital divide.” He called the issues “developments over the past month” not part of the state guidance issued in June.

The “digital divide” has been a priority for many public districts since before the pandemic and was talked about repeatedly last spring when schools were forced to abruptly go remote due to the public health emergency.

In mid-July, Murphy unveiled his administration’s general plan to address such unmet pre-K-to-12 student technological needs, including reliable internet connectivity and one-to-one digital devices.

The state’s guidance on June 26 said that districts "should strive to share preliminary scheduling plans with staff, families, and students at least four weeks before the start of the school year in order to allow families to plan child care and work arrangements.”

With many districts typically starting classes after Labor Day, the suggested goal is by Aug.10.

“I understand the shifting nature of the pandemic but I am looking for any semblance of leadership that is not just dumped on superintendents under the guise of flexibility," Sampson said.

Toms River Regional Schools Superintendent David Healy has said that even the hybrid schedule his township has in place “is nearly impossible” given resources and logistics, as reported by Asbury Park Press.

The same report said Healy calls entirely remote learning a “logical prediction,” given the circumstances, including the positions of school boards and educator’s unions.

The current Toms River education model allows for each student to have two days of in-person learning.

A message for Healy left by New Jersey 101.5 was not immediately returned Wednesday.

A late July announcement by Murphy that families would have the option to select 100% remote learning for their students actually opened up plans in one Middlesex County township to allow for an extra day of in-person instruction, as first reported by NJ.com.

Woodbridge schools Superintendent Robert Zega presented the updated school plan in a July 23 video presentation posted to YouTube.

Zega said 47% of families responded to a survey that they planned to keep their students home, which could allow for a second day of in-person learning for the remaining half of the student population.

 

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