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Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration have walked a political tightrope concerning how much guidance to provide New Jersey’s schools to operate.
On one hand, Murphy and his staff have required districts to submit a multitude of plans and details for whatever learning model they are following, be it remote, hybrid, in-person or all of the above.
On the other, even those guidelines have left much of the ultimate decision-making to local districts and communities, with Murphy openly referring to the power of home rule.
Now that highwire act is starting up anew for the state’s education commissioner, just three months on the job, as COVID-19 numbers improve across the state and more schools are moving back to in-person instruction.
Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan got an earful Tuesday from some of the state’s biggest education leaders and stakeholders when she spoke before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools.
More a general forum than a hearing on specific legislation, the hour-long meeting was called ostensibly to talk about the damage wrought by the pandemic on schools and students, and what to do this spring and going into the next school year.
It’s not a small topic, and a follow-up meeting is scheduled for March 9.
‘Moon shot’ is needed
But this first meeting got very specific, too, with both tutorials on effective practices from local districts and charter schools. There were also pointed pleas for the state to take a more active role and bring some urgency to an understanding of the scope of the problem.
“Please, let this be a ‘moon shot’ for us,” said Mount Olive Superintendent Robert Zywicki, proposing a 24-month strategic plan that included funding for afterschool programs, expanded counseling and a menu of other help.
“Let’s talk about it, like other states are doing,” he said. “That conversation is absent right now in the state of New Jersey.”
Allen-McMillan, a former Essex County teacher and administrator who was appointed commissioner in October, said the state was looking to take a more proactive role in the coming days and weeks.
As did subsequent speakers, she focused especially on the pandemic’s toll on student learning, particularly in already disadvantaged communities, saying that a wholesale strategy will be needed.
Allen-McMillan listed a host of federal and other funding chutes — amounting to more than $1.5 billion — that schools should be able to tap. And she listed programs like added extended-year programs, professional development for teachers, and “high dosage, one-on-one tutoring.”
“We are finalizing these plans as I speak, and anticipate releasing additional information shortly,” Allen-McMillan said.
Focus on student testing
Allen-McMillan was questioned closely about the Murphy administration’s plans to move forward on spring student testing under the state’s Student Learning Assessments.
A chorus of statewide groups led by the New Jersey Education Association and others has called for the state to seek a federal waiver from the testing for the second year, citing the disruption the testing would likely cause and its limited value during a pandemic.
But the commissioner again cited the federal requirements for annual testing and the Biden administration’s apparent intent to stick to them, not even accepting waiver requests so far.
Allen-McMillan also said some reliable assessment is vital, especially now. “It is impossible to accelerate learning if you cannot measure it, either with statewide assessment data or with local information on student performance,” she said.
The commissioner did open up the possibility that the testing could take at least some different forms. She pointed to more ongoing or so-called formative assessments that are taking place with the state’s optional “Start Strong” tests that a handful of districts used in the fall.
“We are exploring how to norm formative assessment this year and ways to expand formative assessment options next school year,” she said.
Mixed messages from Trenton
The commissioner took a few questions from members of the committee, which comprises both Senate and Assembly members.
Sen. Ralph Caputo (D-Essex) asked about any state guidance on keeping back or promoting students, something that he said was a big issue for families after such a tumultuous year. The commissioner indicated it would be forthcoming.
Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) said the Murphy administration had provided mixed messages to districts over the last several months. “We know schools can open safely, but that has not been the message,” he said.
The commissioner has said it has been difficult with the public-health conditions ever changing, and at least so far, federal guidance to schools having stayed relatively steady. But that could soon change with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expected to release new guidance for education this week.