NEW JERSEY — On Monday, school districts across New Jersey return from winter break. And while most of the world will be putting 2020 in the rearview mirror, many students and teachers will be picking up in 2021 where 2020 left off: weighing the struggles of remote instruction against safety concerns in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
As it has with everything else, the pandemic turned schooling on its ear in New Jersey in 2020. Educators, parents and students had to make an abrupt shift from full days in the classroom in early March to connecting completely virtually.
As the pandemic worsened and shutdowns stretched from a few weeks through the end of the 2019-2020 school year as medical experts worked to understand how the coronavirus was spreading and what it was doing, educators, parents and students found themselves trying to negotiate an additional set of challenges.
Districts with large numbers of low-income students and families scrambled to provide internet access and equipment, as well as food programs to make sure those children ate and were able to connect to school. Parents found themselves having to help children, especially the youngest students, navigate the technology. Some were juggling the needs while working from home. In other families, older children were helping younger siblings, sometimes to their own detriment as students.
Months later, many of the issues remain. More than 14,000 students statewide — down from more than 231,000 students in the summer — still lack devices to connect to the internet or internet connections for remote learning.
Parents whose jobs couldn’t shift to working at home found themselves reducing their hours or having to quit to take care of their children, putting them in precarious financial situations. At-risk children — those living in poverty, lacking adequate supervision, or in dangerous situations — no longer had the structure and interaction with teachers and counselors that could keep them safe.
The dilemma of being able to work has had many parents pressing for school districts to return to full-time in-person instruction. While some districts started the school year with fully in-person instruction, there have been classes quarantined and schools closed because of outbreaks.
School administrators have been faced with constantly changing demands from state health and education officials to ensure students and school staff are not the source of spreading the virus.
Coronavirus spread has been fairly limited in New Jersey’s schools. There have been 108 outbreaks — where in-school transmission has taken place — and 546 cases connected to those outbreaks, according to the state's COVID-19 database. One of those outbreaks involves 83 people at one Essex County school, according to the database. There are more than 3,000 schools statewide.
Outbreaks and rising case rates — all of New Jersey is in the “very high” range for coronavirus case rates, under the state’s COVID-19 Activity Report for Dec. 26 — have prompted some districts to start 2021 with fully remote instruction, in hopes that infections spread over the holiday break won’t lead to in-school transmission.
Heading into the break, there were 82 school districts offering fully in-person instruction, and 320 districts that were fully on remote instruction. There were 362 districts offering a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction, and 47 districts offering a mix of all remote, in-person or hybrid instruction, Gov. Phil Murphy said Dec. 21.
The Westfield School District was among those that announced fully remote instruction. Superintendent Margaret Dolan said it would be on a fully remote schedule through Jan. 8.
"The two-week pause to in-person instruction after Thanksgiving worked well,” Dolan said in announcing the remote week. “That pause kept confirmed cases of COVID out of our schools and helped to contain the numbers for the community."
In Manchester Township, a number of cases popping up in the district’s schools led to a declaration of remote instruction for the last day before the winter break. One school in the district was on remote instruction after Thanksgiving, and there were spikes throughout the district in November and December.
Manchester schools had been looking to increase the amount of in-person instruction, but that plan was put on hold because of the increasing cases. Before the break, Superintendent David Trethaway said remote learning could resume if the rise in cases doesn’t slow.
"If this trend continues and if at some point we feel that the safety and health of our students becomes an issue or if students cannot be properly supervised, we would consider moving to a remote-only option," he said. "While we realize the importance of in-person instruction, other factors such as health and safety would take precedence."
Trethaway’s statements illustrate the dilemma that district officials across the state are facing: balancing the need for in-person instruction with health and safety concerns.
In the Toms River Regional School District, those concerns, particularly among the teaching staff, led to the district beginning the school year fully remote because there were not enough teachers to cover all of the classes in the more than 15,000-student school district.
While then-Superintendent David Healy announced the plan to start remote two weeks before the school year started, the pushback from parents who wanted children back in school full-time was persistent and vocal.
The district moved quickly to get its youngest students back into a hybrid with two days in school and three days remote in early October, and by mid-November all grade levels had hybrid instruction. But just as quickly a spike in cases — which overwhelmed the staff doing contact tracing — prompted a shift back to remote instruction after Thanksgiving. A return to hybrid instruction a week early had parents complaining about the rapid changes and was a reminder of the adage “you can’t please everyone.”
The district was planning to begin 2021 with its hybrid schedule as interim Superintendent Thomas Gialanella takes over.
"Closing schools is never an easy decision,” Healy said. “It is our firm belief that our students need the academic and social-emotional support in-person learning provides," Healy said. "We are constantly evaluating the situation and will continue to consult with local and state health officials on the ever-changing information and data related to COVID-19 to ensure the safety” of the district’s students and staff.
The changes in the state’s guidance have created a minefield for administrators, however, going back to the spring as they tried to plan for graduations and spring events, on through the summer as they worked to reopen for the fall. The latest changes were released Dec. 22, and emphasize quarantining close contacts of someone who tests positive, rather than wholesale closing of schools.
What remains to be seen is whether a reported new mutation in the virus that is said to be far more contagious will alter the decision-making. The first case of the new strain, which is said to be twice as contagious but not more severe, was diagnosed in Colorado in late December.
The pandemic isn't the only issue schools will be facing. Lingering in the background is the upcoming school funding cycle. It promises to be the most stressful budget cycle in years.
For nearly 200 districts, the 2021-22 school year is anticipated to bring the deepest cuts to funding under S2, the law Murphy signed in 2018 that reduces aid to some districts on the premise that they receive more than their fair share and are not bearing their fair share of the property tax burden.
S2 also requires districts that are said to be not taxing their residents adequately to increase their property tax levy. That is constrained by the state’s 2 percent cap on increases in the levy, and districts are finding they cannot make up the deficit created by the aid cuts.
Districts also have the added costs of personal protective equipment, disinfectant, hand sanitizer, and other supplies to cope with the coronavirus, and the impact of a state law referred to as Chapter 44, which requires districts to provide a health benefits package to educators that proponents say will save money. Districts that are self-insured, however, are finding the initial rollout could cost them a significant amount of money upfront.
All of those factors increase the potential for budget cuts, and that could include cuts to staffing, which will likely exacerbate problems districts have faced in providing adequate supervision and sufficient social distancing in schools.
The impact of the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines also is unclear as of yet. The vaccines have not been tested in children younger than 16 and have not been recommended for children. Vaccination opponents have been vocal about their refusal to receive the inoculations.
Health officials from the federal to the county level, however, have been urging people to get vaccinated, to reduce the risks of becoming infected and suffering serious illness from the coronavirus, not only personally but to the community at large.
School officials will be grappling with all of those issues as the school year moves through the next 10 weeks and reaches the March 16 anniversary of when everything shut down.
The hope that many express privately, and some publicly, is to get back to fully in-person instruction and avoid a repeat of the spring of 2020, where spring sports and proms were canceled and high school graduations were celebrated with slideshows and a hodgepodge of live events.
Murphy has given no indication that he is inclined to shut down all the schools in the state the way he did in March, instead insisting schools will remain open as long as the vast majority of school districts are able to contain the spread.
Murphy and other state officials have repeatedly cited studies that say schools have been safe and that there is no evidence that they can cause any widespread transmission. The various precautions — such as mask-wearing and social distancing, as well as remote options — have helped keep them safe, they say.