On a humid Friday in July, members of NJ21United, a partnership of NJEA members, parents, and community allies, set out on a quest to speak with every County Education Superintendent in the state of New Jersey. Our goal was simple: ask the Superintendents why they think schools should reopen for in-person learning when we still can’t dine indoors or go to the gym. With daily coronavirus cases increasing, the state’s transmission rate creeping up, and the situation nationwide spiraling out of control, this seems an odd time for our state to send a million children and hundreds of thousands of school staff back into poorly-ventilated classrooms and school buses. Governor Murphy has even admitted that gathering indoors is “playing with fire.” But the Governor still insists that school buildings must reopen.
The day started early in Atlantic County, where a fatal flaw in our plan revealed itself: most of the County Superintendents are working remotely. That’s right: most of the people charged with approving local school districts’ plans for in-person learning are themselves sheltering from the pandemic in the safety of their own homes. Our officials deem it unsafe to work in spacious, well-constructed offices, but they insist it is safe for schoolchildren and staff to crowd into classrooms.
We found locked doors in Atlantic County, with a sign that instructed us to dial a phone number if we needed assistance. There were three security guards and four police officers outside the Camden County office, but no superintendent. Same in Mercer, Burlington, Ocean, Essex, Union, Somerset, Monmouth, and Cumberland Counties. In Salem County, the staff sent us a block away, but when we arrived, they told us they didn’t actually know where the Superintendent’s office was located, and in fact they weren’t even sure he actually has an office at all.
In Gloucester, there were again as many police as protesters. We got a few minutes of face time with the County Superintendent, who told us they understood our concerns but didn’t have a direct line to the Governor. And credit where due: the superintendents of Bergen and Middlesex were in the office, and gave us a chance to express our concerns.
By and large, though, the people with approval authority over the plans to keep students, staff, and communities safe don’t feel comfortable working in person in their own offices. Actions speak louder than words, and their actions show that it’s not safe to reopen school buildings until America truly suppresses and controls the coronavirus.
Here’s a brief sketch of a better plan: this school year should begin with extensive training for staff on crisis distance learning, along with trauma-informed outreach to families to assess needs. Meal provision, like the programs developed after the shutdown last March, should resume and be expanded through district and local association partnerships. While these weeks of training and outreach occur, school HVAC systems should be upgraded, and technology distributed to every student to ensure their access to distance learning. This would be followed by a period of crisis distance learning with teacher-led classes that would continue until there are no new cases of COVID-19 in New Jersey for 14 consecutive days. Only at that point would hybrid learning with cohort scheduling occur.
Doing this will take time and lots of money. Some of that will come from the CARES Act, but more will be required from the federal government. But reopening schools will be paid for, with time and money, or with sickness and lives.