Groups of New Jersey and New York City teachers are asking their states to keep remote learning for the upcoming fall semester until it is completely safe for students to return to in-person learning -- but elected officials on Wednesday doubled down on in-person instruction if schools choose that option, providing that they meet health and safety guidelines.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced an executive order for pre-K through grade 12 schools and universities to officially reopen for the upcoming academic year if they desire and if they meet social distancing and other health and safety standards, including social distancing. However, students who choose remote learning "must be accommodated."
Wednesday's decision also means some school districts can begin with just virtual learning, as schools will not be forced to offer in-person learning. It’s unclear how many districts that would entail, but Murphy and interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer said most schools have already picked a hybrid option, meaning some in-person and some remote instruction.
Murphy said the change stemmed from “our willingness to listen” to stakeholders, and is "not a change of course," but rather a flexibility and willingness to adapt to individual district needs and abilities.
"New Jersey’s system of education has long been rooted in local control and decision-making based on local input," Murphy said on Twitter. "I would not ask the students and parents in Willingboro to decide what’s best for East Brunswick’s schools, and vice versa."
The news comes a day after, in a joint letter to the governor on Tuesday, the state's largest teachers union and two educators' unions say the goal of having kids and educators back in school in September without exposing them to the coronavirus is "simply not achievable."
"The question of whether and when to reopen for in-person instruction is first and foremost a public health decision that cannot be left in the hands of nearly 600 individual school districts," the letter by New Jersey Association of School Administrators, New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association and New Jersey Education Association said. "The stakes are too high, and the consequences of a wrong decision are too grave."
The unions say they support Murphy's decision to have in-person learning again not only when the science and data say it's safe, but also when resources are available in school buildings.
As school children in other parts of the country go back to normal studies, teachers who are still on their summer break have been watching closely. In Georgia, a viral photo of a school’s crowded hallways sparked criticism about reopenings. The school later temporarily closed after nine people there tested positive for COVID-19, the district’s superintendent said.
“We have seen what is happening elsewhere in the country where, within a few days of opening, schools are having to transition to remote learning following outbreaks of COVID-19. Every day, through research and the experience of other states, we are learning more about the effects of this disease on children and their ability to contribute to community spread," the teacher unions continued.
Gov. Murphy and the state's Department of Education released preliminary guidance in June that initially suggested the involvement of a hybrid approach of in-person and remote learning. Then in July, about six weeks before the scheduled start of instruction, Murphy approved an option for parents to request all-remote learning for their children.
The state did not list how may have requested to start with an all-remote approach, but there are at least three that have already said they will do so: Bayonne, Elizabeth and Jersey City. The school board in Elizabeth, New Jersey, voted Monday to begin the school year with all remote learning after hundreds of teachers said they won't return to in-person teaching due to COVID concerns. The state's department of education will have to approve the plan.
In a Tuesday letter to parents and guardians, Elizabeth Schools Superintendent Olga Hugelmeyer said in part: "As of today, 402 teachers have notified the district that they require special considerations for health-related risks and cannot teach in person. That number has been increasing daily. As a result, there would be insufficient staff to safely open. With five weeks until school begins, it is unfruitful to continue to pursue something that cannot occur. Instead, I have directed the Administration to take the needed steps to provide the best possible virtual instruction. We are examining service options for our most challenged students."
Late on Wednesday, the Paterson Board of Education also approved delaying the opening of school buildings until at least Nov. 1, with the district assessing conditions on Oct. 15 to see if opening on that date will be possible. The decision still has to be approved by the state's Department of Education.
“We have repeatedly asked for universal statewide health standards, which have not been provided," the unions' letter continued. They also brought attention to inadequate levels of funding, staffing, equipment and facilities which could result in inequities in the level of safety of students in different districts.
As of Wednesday, there have been 185,938 positive coronavirus cases in New Jersey with a total of 14,046 lives lost and an additional 1,839 probable COVID-19 deaths.
Across the Hudson River in New York City, the union that represents school supervisors had a clear message: Schools and staff are not on board with in-person learning quite yet.
"We are not ready. We do not have all the information we need," said Council of School Supervisors President Mark Cannizzaro. "Folks have been working tirelessly, but we are not going to be OK for September 10th."
In a letter, the CSA said that the plan from the city's Department of Education is too vague, with not enough time to get more clarity. They offered that a "more realistic, phased-in approach would instead welcome students for in-person learning toward the end of September, following a fully remote start to the year." In addition to safety concerns, the letter said that because they still have to wait for approval after all plans were submitted this week, "school leadership teams will have less than 15 working days to prepare for the arrival of students without much of the necessary guidance and training in place."
The United Federation of Teachers, the largest teachers union in the city, said that after hearing the principals union concerns, it makes it more clear that school buildings should not be open to students in less than a month.
"Will any parents be willing to put their children in a school whose principal believes the building is not ready to open because it is not safe?" asked UFT President Michael Mulgrew.
In response to the groups concerns, the city's DOE said that they have been discussing their plans with the unions every day, and have addressed policy details for weeks.
"The CSA and UFT know we’ll only open our doors if we meet the strictest standards set by any school district in the nation—and that protecting health and safety has always driven our work together," DOE spokesperson Danielle Filson said in a statement. "The vast majority of our students are currently planning for blended learning, and we know our dedicated school leaders and educators will show up for them like they have every year."
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said city plan is strong enough, that schools will be open for in-person learning, and that the vast majority of New York City parents support it (even though the numbers include those parents who didn't fill out the survey, and whose children were automatically enrolled in hybrid learning).
"The irony is for years everyone wanted smaller class size. This is not how we wanted to do it," de Blasio said Wednesday while visiting a school in Queens. "Our educators are extraordinarily devoted to our kids and they understand there's just no way to serve our kids as well remotely as in they're in the classroom."
The remaining uncertainty surrounding opening schools, scheduled to take place in just over four weeks, comes amid troubling COVID numbers in three neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs: the Rockaways (where the mayor was on Wednesday) in Queens, Tremont in the Bronx and Sunset Park in Brooklyn — where 228 people tested positive for the coronavirus in the last week of July, equaling about seven percent of those tested.
That would be almost seven times higher than the citywide average of one percent, where the city has remained around for weeks. The mayor called the spike a "warning light, a sign there's something going on that we want to ... delve further into."
President Donald Trump meanwhile announced new recommendations for schools countrywide during his press briefing Wednesday evening. He said that his administration would be providing schools across the U.S. with "up to 125 million reusable masks" and that there would be guidelines for each school to follow. Some of those rules include:
- Requiring all students, teachers and staff to know symptoms of COVID-19, and to self-assess their health each day before going to school; if they are symptomatic, they should consult their doctor
- Encourage frequent hand washing or sanitizing during the school day
- Minimize large indoor group gatherings, and for any large gatherings to be held outside whenever possible
- Keep classrooms clean and ventilated, with windows and doors staying open
- All individuals in schools should socially distance around high-risk individuals, with masks encouraged when social distancing is not possible
It was not clear who developed the instructions, but they were from the administration itself, not the Centers for Disease Control