Democratic legislators want K-12 school year to begin with all-remote learning

New Jersey Assembly Democrats Mila Jasey, Pamela Lampitt and Joann Downey have announced they are planning to introduce legislation that would – if passed in the Assembly and Senate and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy – require school districts to provide virtual or remote instruction during the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.

Under the proposed bill, public schools would begin the 2020-21 school year with only virtual or remote instruction, with the exception of special education and related services that must be delivered in person, according to a July 29 press release from the New Jersey Democrats.

Beginning Oct. 31, reopening schools for in-person instruction would be evaluated on a monthly basis by Murphy, in consultation with the Commissioner of Education and the Commissioner of Health.

Reopening schools would be contingent upon a number of factors, including New Jersey’s phased reopening and public health data on the spread of COVID-19. School district administrators would develop guidelines and plans for in-person instruction that adhere to public health guidance, according to the press release.

Additionally, under the proposed measure, school districts may delay the start of the 2020-21 school year by up to two weeks from the district’s regular start date. If a district chooses this option, it must conduct professional development for teachers on delivering virtual or remote instruction, according to the press release.

New Jersey’s schools were ordered to close in mid-March by Murphy at the start of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. For the remainder of the school year, students received a remote (virtual) education at their homes.

Murphy recently directed school administrators to develop, in collaboration with community stakeholders, a plan to reopen schools in September in a manner that best fits a district’s local needs.

Guidance from the governor’s office describes the health and safety practices administrators should prioritize, including social distancing, the wearing of face masks, limiting capacity in classrooms and an increase in sanitation and disinfecting of surfaces.

Now, however, legislators are looking to delay students’ return to their schools.

“No one can deny the benefits of in-person instruction, especially for our younger students. However, the safety of our children must always come first,” said Downey (D-Monmouth), chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee.

“We also must keep in mind our valued teachers, many of whom have health concerns or fear bringing the virus home to their families.

“We can’t predict how the virus will impact New Jersey this fall, but we do know it will likely be complicated by flu and allergy season. For the safety of all, our best course of action is to focus our efforts on improving remote instruction, closing the digital divide and keeping our students safe,” Downey said.

“The reality is the pandemic isn’t over. School is set to begin in just a few weeks and it is not clear that a safe and comfortable environment can be maintained for students and staff,” said Jasey (D-Essex, Morris), chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

“We have heard from school administrators, medical professionals, educators, students and parents on school reopening, and the common sentiment being expressed is the same – our schools lack the guidance and support needed to safely reopen,” said Lampitt (D-Camden, Burlington), chair of the Assembly Education Committee.

” … Until we can ensure the safety of our students and school staff, we must focus our efforts on how we can enhance remote and virtual learning to provide students with the highest quality education possible,” Lampitt said.

Also, under the bill, school districts may hold outdoor events for students, teachers and parents to meet one another and foster relationships during the remote learning period. These events must comply with state and federal health and safety guidelines for COVID-19, according to the press release.

The press release does not indicate when the legislation may be introduced.