TRENTON — Legislators and education officials say the state must do more to help schools reopen their doors and students recover from pandemic-inflicted learning losses over the next few years.

At a Tuesday hearing of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools, promised to be the first in a series on the topic, acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan said the response will need to cover the whole state.

“Our understanding from the research and what we’re gleaning from school districts is that every student in the state has, if you will, lost ground. They’ve had disrupted learning,” Allen-McMillan said. “And so how can we help everyone move forward?”

Allen-McMillan said that since September, the number of districts where all students are learning remotely has dropped from more than 280 to 190. The number that are fully in-person has gone from nearly 80 to 95. Another 481 districts are now using a hybrid of both approaches, up from 400.

Westfield schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan said it has been “an impossible year” with challenges such as ventilation issues and teachers unable to work in person because of health conditions and the occasional quarantine. However imperfect, though, she said schools have persevered.

“I summarized some of the challenges, but I want you to know the teachers are teaching and the students are learning,” Dolan said. “We have spent a great deal of time talking about the priority standards, making sure all the teachers are working together to make sure that the students are not losing a year.”

Julie Borst, executive director of Save Our Schools NJ, said research done by teacher Mark Weber, an education policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective, finds minority students are much more likely to attend underfunded school districts where only remote learning is offered.

“I think it’s very stark that our most underserved students are the ones who have not had the ability to be inside of a classroom,” Borst said.

Allen-McMillan made a similar point earlier in the meeting.

“These challenges do not affect our students equally,” she said. “Under normal conditions, health and economic struggles tend to disproportionately affect low-income families and families of color. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified existing societal inequities.”

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Looking ahead, Mount Olive schools Superintendent Robert Zywicki said a conversation needs to be held about a long-term plan to help students make up the impact of the disruptions of the past two school years. Other states are making plans, but New Jersey has not, he said.

“Please provide funding for wrap-around programs, summer programs, additional guidance counselors, additional interventions,” Zywicki said. “What I am asking you for is a 24-month, fully funded statewide plan to combat learning loss. That means we need staff. We need interventionists.”

Elizabeth Warner, president of the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for New Jersey, said attention is needed for social emotional learning as well as traditional academics, for everyone in the schools.

“A successful return to school will need to be organized, efficient and effective, guided by clearer priorities,” Warner said. “To achieve this, the adults must be the first priority. It is important to focus on adult SEL skills so that the adults can model and teach SEL skills to their students. Adult emotions are contagious.”

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