NJ lawmakers push against calls for all-virtual schools in fall
TRENTON — Just as there’s no consensus around New Jersey on the thorny issue of whether to reopen school buildings in September, there’s also disagreement in the state Legislature.
In late July, when the Assembly Education Committee took testimony on the state’s school reopening plan, lawmakers concurred with groups pushing for an all-virtual start to the year. The reception was different when a similar message was delivered to the Assembly Health Committee.
Christine Miles, associate director of professional development and instructional issue for the New Jersey Education Association, said it’s not yet safe to reopen schools.
“If a child or educator becomes infected and dies from COVID when we readily know the threat presented and do not yet have a safe pathway to contain the virus, those who ignore the research are culpable and complicit,” Miles said.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Camden, said the NJEA’s concerns aren’t consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and that research shows kids aren’t primary vectors for the virus.
“I certainly for one do not think that we’re making guinea pigs of children and it seems to me in your statement that you’re not accounting for all of the damage that’s occurring because kids are not in school, never mind the consequent effects on the economy,” Conaway said.
Jeanne Craft, president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the ultimate goal must be in-person education but that new investments are needed in order for that to happen in some places.
“There will likely be some schools or some districts or some regions that the safety obstacles will not be met in a really short time frame, other schools where they will be met and will be able to open perhaps for some of the children for some of the days,” Craft said.
Unless Gov. Phil Murphy changes position, that’s not possible. The guidance from the state Department of Education requires schools to be open for some in-person education, with an expectation that the schedule will also include virtual, online learning to accommodate social-distancing requirements.
Jennie Lamon, assistant director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, which is also calling for an all-virtual start to the year, said it would be helpful if the state would buy personal protective equipment and supplies in bulk and distribute it to schools.
“In order to meet health guidelines, schools need to acquire these supplies before they open their doors on the first day, but many are experiencing difficulties. We’re hearing from districts that have received notices of back-order status on such basics as masks and hand sanitizer,” Lamon said.
State Police Superintendent Col. Patrick Callahan said that’s not the plan but, like in any disaster, the state’s stockpile could be tapped if it comes to it.
“Whatever we took from them (in March), we would replenish them completely, but beyond that we are asking the districts to be on their own,” Callahan said.
Assemblyman Erik Peterson, R-Hunterdon, called the testimony fearmongering by teachers and principals that doesn’t account for the needs of students, particularly those who are poor or have special needs.
“I have four kids,” Peterson said. “And when we went into virtual education mode (last March), which was a disaster, my kids got really no education.”
“I don’t think any of the issues raised are any kind of obstacles that a well-run school couldn’t overcome and figure out,” Peterson said. “These are issues that businesses have been grappling with themselves because they’re following the state and CDC rules, and little mom-and-pop businesses are able to figure it out. I don’t think any of these are any hurdles to opening the schools for in-person education at the given time in the next couple of weeks.”
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.