All New Jersey students will have the option of full-time remote learning in the fall, Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday.
“This option should be allowed by school districts as part of their reopening plans. We have heard from numerous parents and families who’ve asked for this and we’ve heard them loud and clear,” Murphy said during his regular briefing in Trenton. “We are not mandating any one specific way to move forward.”
With the school year slated to begin in six weeks, school districts only have a short window to meet the core elements of the DOE’s guidance. Remote learning must be universally available, per the DOE, including for students who receive special education or related services.
Full-time remote learning policies must be clearly and consistently communicated to parents, and students “should receive the same quality of instruction that is provided to any other student,” according to DOE, and must meet attendance and length-of-day requirements. School districts must report participation data on participation in remote learning programs to the state.
Moreover, Murphy acknowledged, things could change as the public health picture shifts.
“This is really hard. It’s really hard for kids, educators, parents, all of us,” he said. “We have to accept the fact that this is not going to be normal, that facts are evolving and we promised we’d be open minded and evolve with them.”
Last week, Save Our Schools New Jersey Executive Director Julie Borst estimated that anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of the state’s public school students may go fully remote in September.
Sen. Teresa Ruiz said she felt glad to have some uniformity across the state, as some districts already announced plans for parents to opt into remote-only learning.
“There’s still a lot of moving pieces,” Ruiz told POLITICO. “This is an overwhelming decision-making process superintendents have to undertake. The bulk of the responsibility falls on their shoulders and that’s extraordinary, as they’re making both health and academic decisions.”
Ruiz said she wanted to see the Murphy administration provide checklists so that districts could meet specific criteria to ensure they adhere to standards.
Borst said she was glad but still would like more — particularly for parents who would presumably oversee remote learning.
“It would probably be helpful if there were tutorials aimed at parents to help them sort out how you do schoolwork at home,” she said, suggesting the districts and DOE should address several topics, from guidance on how long assignments should take to how to use the software required for remote learning.
Closing the digital divide has been an obstacle since schools closed this spring, and it’s a challenge the Murphy administration continues to face as it looks toward the next school year.
“We cannot tolerate a situation where even one student lacks access to the digital resources necessary to learn and succeed in school,” New Jersey Education Association spokesperson Steve Baker wrote in an email. “Whatever happens this fall, most students are going to be doing at least some — if not all — of their learning remotely. Every student needs to be able to participate fully in that.”
In early July, the Murphy DOE estimated that roughly 230,000 students of the 1.4 million statewide lacked the technological resources to effectively participate in remote learning when classes first went remote on March 18 because of the coronavirus pandemic. That number has remained steady, Murphy’s chief policy adviser, Zakiya Smith Ellis, said Friday, even based on updated DOE surveys.
Murphy has committed to providing devices and internet access to all, funded by federal CARES Act money.
“My concern is: we’re six weeks away from reopening. It was 230,000 last week and it’s still 230,00 this week. When will it start moving downward?” said Ruiz, who, as head of the Senate Education Committee, has been an outspoken proponent of quickly getting students those resources. “It’s a little more than just doing this. The district has to prepare.”