By ERIN ROLL
The New Jersey School Boards Association has released a report detailing the issues that will face school officials and families when the schools reopen to a “new normal.”
In the nearly three months since the pandemic forced the closure of public schools in the state, students went through a sometimes difficult transition to digital learning; the reopening of schools will challenge the education community even further, according to the report.
Budgets will be impacted and classroom learning will be disrupted; mental health issues will have to be dealt with. Those are among the biggest challenges, along with attempting to stem a possible second wave of COVID-19 in the fall, the report states.
Possible adaptations include having one group of students attend classes in person and another attend virtually, swapping those groups on a regular basis to maintain safe distancing. Students also will have to be monitored for illness upon arrival.
What happens with activities such as school sports, performing arts programs, and special events like dances is yet to be seen.
Montclair school officials have not yet determined what the new school year would look like, if the schools are to reopen in September.
“I’m not confident that we’re going to be able to open in any way that looks like what being open in the past looked like,” Board of Education member Jessica de Koninck said on May 18.
At board meetings this month, parents raised questions about smaller class sizes, classrooms arranged to allow for social distancing, and outdoor activities like sports and recess.
New Jersey is currently in phase two of its reopening process. At this time, schools and institutes of higher learning are still closed. Phase three will see their reopening.
In phase two, schools and institutes of higher learning have some capacity for in-person instruction, but distance learning needs to continue. In phase three, K-12 and higher education may operate in-person, but with reduced capacity.
Schools will remain closed, the federal Centers for Disease Control advises, if they cannot comply with state and local orders, cannot provide sufficient safeguards for students and teachers who are at higher risk for contracting the disease, and cannot screen students and teachers on arrival.
The NJSBA conducted a survey of educators on their preferred scheduling if school reopens. About 29 percent of respondents, which was the largest single response group, said they preferred alternating between in-person instruction and virtual instruction. The other options included split sessions, and using non-classroom spaces for instruction.
Another option, which only 4 percent of respondents favored, is a six-day school week.
The report cautioned that transportation could be an obstacle, in the event of scenarios like a shortage of bus drivers due to a theoretical strike or drivers becoming ill.
The report found that districts, where a large portion of students did not have regular access to a computer or internet at home, had difficulty with the online learning process, and these difficulties were especially noticeable in large urban districts and in isolated rural districts. By contrast, the report said, suburban communities with adequate resources tended to report a smooth transition to online learning.
The Montclair schools issued Chromebooks and created hotspots for students who did not have regular access to computers and internet service at home. The group Laptop Upcycle also distributed laptops to students in need.
The report noted that even before COVID-19, children and teens were experiencing more difficulties with anxiety, stress, depression, and other mental health issues. The report says that school districts should develop a long-term recovery plan that includes a full assessment of student and staff needs and identifies a network of mental health professionals in the community who can be called upon as resources.
The New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association is making plans to move forward with a resumption of sports in the fall.
The report noted that legislation being proposed in Trenton calls for a “bridge year,” which would allow students heading to college to make up for sports, artistic pursuits, and other activities that were lost during their senior year of high school.
“Looking toward our schools reopening, the challenges—academically, financially, socially, logistically—eclipse those involved in the school closings. But, as evidenced in this report, they can be met with guidance and support from the state and federal governments, the commitment of local board of education members, superintendents, and other district leaders, and the dedication of our educators and support staff,” the report stated.