On March 16, 2020, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy made the difficult decision to issue Executive Order 104, joining a growing movement from state governors to halt in-person classroom instruction in public schools to combat the spread of COVID-19. New Jersey’s 2,500 schools quickly worked with teachers, students, and parents to move instruction to remote learning.
With an eye on the fall start of the 2020-2021 school year, The New Jersey Department of Education on Friday released a 104-page Restart and Recovery Plan for Education, where they outlined measures to prepare the states 2,500 schools for a safe reopening in the fall. While the guidelines target safe reopening for New Jersey’s public schools, according to New Jersey Commissioner of Education, Lamont Repollet, “Non-public schools are encouraged to also utilize this document to guide their reopening strategies and anticipate the health and safety standards that are likely to accompany the return to in-person instruction.”
While schools will be grappling with the lasting impacts from COVID-19 for many years to come, the New Jersey Department of Education is providing an initial road-map to address critical health and safety issues to open schools in the fall.
Scope of the Guidelines
The scope of the New Jersey Department of Education reopening guidelines focuses on how schools can structurally and procedurally provide a safe learning environment for students and educators which is able to accommodate students’ unique needs resulting from ongoing COVID-19 risks.
The 104-page plan offers guidance across four key subject areas:
- Conditions for Learning
- Leadership and Planning
- Policy and Funding
- Continuity of Learning
- Anticipated minimum standards: Minimum requirements which school districts should incorporate in their reopening plans as “definite components related to health, safety, and operations.”
- Considerations: Recommendations and guidelines that school districts should include in their reopening planning considerations, but “do not represent necessary components of plans.”
Conditions for Learning
In a addition to covering requirements to ensure the physical safety of students and educators in schools, the New Jersey Department of Education guidelines also cover the “social and emotional and environmental factors that can impact educators’ capacity to teach and students’ capacity to learn.” The implementation of these requirements and recommendations will ensure that school will be very different this fall.
Minimum Physical Safety Requirements
Minimum school reopening requirements for establishing safe conditions for learning include the following:
- Schools must have a policy for screening students and employees for symptoms of COVID-19.
- Schools much have a policy for identifying history of exposure to COVID-19.
- Schools must attempt to practice social distancing in the classroom and on school buses.
- Schools which are unable to maintain physical distance are required to take additional measures such as placing barriers between desks or turning desks to not face each other.
- All school districts are required to have cleaning and disinfecting policies in place.
- All school staff and visitors are required to wear masks, unless there is a health reason preventing them from doing so.
The New Jersey Department of Education has also identified ten “Critical Areas of Operation” that schools must address as part of their reopening plans:
- General Health and Safety Guidelines: Schools must comply with Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines.
- Classrooms, Testing, and Therapy Rooms: Social distancing in shared spaces must be enforced to the “maximum extent possible.” Face coverings are to be worn in shared spaces.
- Transportation: Social distancing is to be practiced on buses. If it is not possible, students must wear face coverings.
- Student Flow, Entry, Exit, and Common Areas: Schools should establish a process for identifying and guiding employees, students, and visitors to screening stations.
- Screening, PPE, and Response to Students and Staff Presenting Symptoms: Schools must adopt a policy for COVID-19 screening, including history of exposure to COVID-19. People showing symptoms of COVID-19 must be separated and placed in isolation.
- Contact Tracing: School districts should collaborate with local health department officials to develop a policy of contract tracing in the schools.
- Facilities Cleaning Practices: Schools must follow any existing or new cleaning processes required by federal, state, or local health departments.
- Meals: Schools are required to stagger lunchroom eating times to allow for social distancing.
- Recess/Physical Education: Social distancing must be maintained for recess and outdoor activities. Recess times should be staggered to allow for social distancing.
- Extracurricular Activities and Use of Facilities Outside of School Hours: All extracurricular activities must also comply with the required school guidelines and hygiene standards.
Social and Emotional Support Recommendations
While the physical space and safety requirements are considered minimum standards for district reopening plans, the New Jersey Department of Education also recommends additional social and emotional support to help both students and educators. There are five areas identified for consideration with school reopenings:
- Social Emotional Learning and School Climate and Culture: School districts are encouraged to factor in the social and emotional needs of students and educators, and provide a supportive environment to “help prepare for the potential trauma that students and staff have faced during the COVID-19 school closures.”
- Multi-tiered Systems of Support: Schools districts working towards a system of support that helps schools work with parents to identify students who need extra support, and then to work out a system for delivering the extra support.
- Wraparound Supports: Additional supporting services for school environments that include mental health support, health and dental care support, family engagement, and mentoring programs.
- Food Service and Distribution: Providing proper food for students, many from low-income families, will remain a critical focus of the New Jersey Department of Education.
- Quality Child Care: Due to the impacts of modified schools structures, there may be instances of additional child care services being needed. Schools are encouraged to involve child care providers in reopening planning discussions.
Leadership and Planning
In order to ensure that school districts are able to effectively coordinate school reopening plans while adhering to reopening requirements, school districts are advised to create Restart Committees. In addition to the Restart Committees, schools should also establish Pandemic Response Teams that are capable of rapidly implementing changes at the school in response to conditions arising from the ongoing COVID-19 situation.
The Restart Committees should include ” district- and school-level administrators, school
board members or charter trustees, local education association representatives, educators, parents, and students..”
The Restart Committees and the Pandemic Response teams should work closely at the school level and are encouraged to address three specific issues:
- Scheduling: Reopening schedules and in-person instruction time will require coordination with local health officials. Scheduling should include stakeholder input.
- Staffing: The unique needs of school reopenings under pandemic conditions will require an unorthodox use of employee resourcing. In addition to classroom and regular support roles of faculty, there will be additional needs to use staff to monitor social distancing, support COVID-19 screening, and aid with the emotional support of students.
- Athletics: The return of athletics is being discussed and will require additional safety requirements when activities resume.
Policy and Funding
Significant attention is paid to the areas of policy and funding. The extraordinary challenges and purchasing requirements for countering COVID-19 will require school districts to modify school facilities physically and procedurally, which will in many cases incur substantial costs.
To support school funding requirements in preparation for school reopening in the fall, pending Federal and State legislation that includes the CARES ACT, which can open up $310 million in aid for New Jersey. Additional funding coming from FEMA may be made available to districts that apply, and are approved, for expenses that are a “direct result of the declared (COVID-19) emergency.”
State level funding, due to the economic shock from the pandemic, will be significantly lower than originally forecast. While the final budgets for state-level funding to schools is not yet finalized, it is expected that schools will be receiving reduced budgets compared to earlier forecasts.
The Budget Storm coming to Education will severely impact school districts’ abilities to combat COVID-19 in their schools, made especially worse by the increased spending requirements that may continue for much of the 2020-2021 school year.
Continuity of Learning
In assessing the continuity of learning, the New Jersey Board of Education is anticipating that the 2019-2020 school year has resulted in many students not having achieved one full year of progress. It is also unfortunately not possible for school districts to know when school operations will return to their previous levels of occupancy. Keeping these challenges in mind, the New Jersey Board of Education is supporting school districts to provide additional assessment and support to help struggling students catch up to peers and grade level expectations.
Areas of focus for continuity of learning include:
- Ensuring the Delivery of Special Education and Related Services to Students with Disabilities: The New Jersey Board of Education will continue updating and advising districts to help ensure students with disabilities receive the best support possible.
- Technology and Connectivity: School districts should try to ensure that all students have access to a device and internet connectivity to support their online learning requirements.
- Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments: Planning of lessons and curriculum should include the assumption that lessons will be delivered in blended or online environments, and not only in traditional school settings. Teachers will need to adapt traditional teaching taxonomies to set effective online learning lesson objectives.
- Professional Learning: Educators and staff will need additional training to take on the unique requirements of the COVID–19 crisis. As a result, school districts will work with the New Jersey Department of Education to identify training requirements and support ongoing professional development training to equip educators with the training they need
Between Now and the Fall
Education policy makers, school administrators, educators, parents, and students are in uncharted territory with the school reopening planning. Never before has every school in an entire state, and nearly all schools across the country been closed for months to address a public health crisis. The New Jersey department of Education has released their guidelines, requirements, and recommendations.
School districts are being left with a lot of freedom for how they interpret the unique needs of their districts, and for determining how many of the recommended policies can be enacted. As planning for school reopenings begins to move from the state level to the district level, teachers and administrators will substantial support adjusting their schools and lesson instruction to the unique challenges of the time.