Home NS Sentinel N/S Sentinel Opinion Opinion: Reopening New Jersey schools – Yes, but not yet

Opinion: Reopening New Jersey schools – Yes, but not yet

I thank Gov. Phil Murphy for all he has done to keep New Jersey healthy and safe. He has done so knowing that while many will be thankful for and appreciate his decisions, others will oppose those same decisions. This leads me to the reopening of schools where opposition is loud and organized.

As a school superintendent of a large K-12 system, I would like to share my perspective and suggestions, which, hopefully, will provide clarity on the daunting task of safely reopening our schools. Know that educators and families want schools to reopen, but not at the risk of their health and safety. In states that have “opened up,” such as Texas, Florida, California, the virus has surged and death tolls have risen after indoor activity resumed. The United States is recording approximately 65,000 new cases and eclipsing 1,000 deaths daily.

New Jersey has not seen any surge as of yet due to a cautioned approach with the continued closure of certain indoor activities and significantly limiting others. It has clearly been effective to limit groups from attending indoor activities where the virus is known to spread more readily. Schools have been mostly shuttered since mid-March and we are now approaching the new school year and still asking the same question, “Is it safe for schools to reopen?”

I propose that far more is required before such an undertaking. Prior to any consideration to open schools, the state should first open all state and local government offices, along with all other indoor venues, i.e., dining, movie theaters, gyms, etc., at 50-100% occupancy and do so for a minimum of one to two months, in order to identify and illustrate best practices.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA commissioner, has agreed with Dr. Anthony Fauci that the virus spreads more easily in indoor spaces. So prior to sending every child and educator into closed indoor settings all at once, the reopening of all indoor venues will give our state a chance to assess if we can control and coexist with COVID-19 in indoor environments.

There are over 1.6 million children and educators in the State of New Jersey; they should not be the first into the maze. New Jersey educators and families have serious concerns and anxiety regarding the opening of schools in September; in fact there are districts reporting that over 50% of families will choose to keep their children home.

Everyone agrees that we want to be back in school and believes that in-person learning is by far the best option, however, families will not take that risk and one reason relates directly to the multitudes of contradictions in messaging between the state and Department of Education Guidance. Recently, Gov. Murphy stated, “Congregating, even if you’re a young person and you’re healthy – and you may be asymptomatic and you think you’re invincible – you can’t congregate closely indoors.” While each school will do their best, we cannot pretend that schools will be able to fully avoid students from congregating closely indoors, as schools are chock-full of young, healthy children who think they are invincible.

It is challenging to consider reopening schools when

○ State offices remain remote and continue to hold virtual meetings.

○ Indoor dining remains closed, yet 1.4 million children will be asked to eat lunch/breakfast daily inside school buildings.

○ Indoor entertainment remains shuttered or at minimum capacities.

○ NJ colleges/universities are either closed, or have remote learning in place through the Thanksgiving holiday.

If adults are not perceived to be able to wear a mask and social distance in a classroom setting for 50-minute sessions, how are we expecting young children to do so for six hours?

After reviewing the 104-page “Road Back” plan issued by the New Jersey Department of Education, there are more than 50 areas where the solutions offered require districts to spend money that we just do not have, especially with the real potential for budget cuts.

Consider the following areas in the DOE guidance. South Brunswick could easily spend over $1 million for just these few recommendations, none of which even begin to mention staffing.

Quotes from DOE guidance:

○ “Installing sidewalks” – School is scheduled to start in six weeks. If a district was able to convince a local municipality to implement, consider the average time and cost to install a sidewalk is over one year at $40 per square yard. Fiscally irresponsible and impractical.

○ Purchasing “Physical Barriers between desks” – Even at 50% capacity, this would require the purchase of 4-5,000 barriers at the cost of approximately $100 each = $500,000

○ Encourage door-to-door dropoff and pickup of children – Just imagine this: traffic as cars wait behind buses stopping at every house, cost and impact on taxpayers, time on a bus for every child as it makes 30-50 stops per ride.

○ “For furniture that is intended to accommodate more than one student the school district should explore bringing in furniture to replace or consider some type of partitioning system. These have recently become commercially available” – Replacing furniture instead of spending funds on educating children? So many more unanswered questions.

○ Many sections regarding the purchasing of PPE expenses totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Other countries that have seen success have done so by taking uniform measures and by making significant investment in school safety by their governments. Yet here in New Jersey and across the country, we are expected to spend money while dealing with reductions in school funding, and have virtually nothing uniform in place. While New Jersey is currently doing very well, the country is not. When 32 states including border states are under quarantine directives, we have to raise the red flag of concern that this virus is not under control, something that other countries who reopened successfully were able to demonstrate. Families, teachers, administrators and Board of Education members have, rightly so, raised significant concerns regarding the many contradictions, such as the incomprehensible guidance (from the DOE) that mask wearing is essential in all indoor settings except schools.

There is no question that in-person learning is by far the best option. However, there is nothing I have seen or heard in any school plan that will resemble what we all know to be in-person learning. I fully understand that the need for schools to open is significant on many fronts, but again, not at the unknown cost of loss of life and not without first taking all necessary steps, such as assessing our ability to coexist with the virus in large indoor settings.

There are solutions. Schools can create an environment that meets many of our challenges by employing strategies to provide rich and robust virtual learning, aided by Gov. Murphy’s strong commitment to closing the digital divide. At the same time, schools can provide for students that need differently, where virtual learning is not effective. There are also quality solutions to childcare that incorporate strong school/community partnerships. There are solutions and educators and families are willing and able to develop them while keeping health and safety at the forefront of our educational planning.

I hope this provides perspective on what New Jersey school districts are dealing with. South Brunswick, and I am sure all other districts, will be as ready as we can be, but it is vital that the State of New Jersey recognize that schools should not be the venue to “experiment” on whether we can safely open large-scale indoor environments.

Scott Feder
South Brunswick School District

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