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Fine Print: Survey of NJ School Districts, a Clear Call for Help

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Click here for the original article, written by John Mooney.

Title: “Choosing the Best Road Back for Our Children: The Second in a Series of Reports on Education During the Pandemic”

Author: The New Jersey School Boards Association, representing all of the state’s more than 600 boards of education.

Date: Aug. 31, 2020

What it says: The latest report follows an initial report in May that started to gather information and recommendations from school boards and their superintendents on how schools were reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic. Going a step further, this report provides a series of recommendations around funding, guidance and other areas from both state and federal governments.

What it means: With a week to go before districts begin to open in full, the report is a clear cry for help. It outlines how and where schools face the biggest challenges around costs, even with Gov. Phil Murphy’s offer of additional funding. And it is explicit in putting the onus on the Murphy administration and its education department for what it called vague and ever-shifting guidance to districts in the lead-up to the new school year.

Opening quote: “In the face of ever-changing, inconsistent and, often, inadequate state and federal guidance,” wrote NJSBA executive director Lawrence Feinsod in an introductory letter, “school districts have moved forward with reopening plans designed to meet the needs of their students, but these efforts have come at a financial cost that could have negative consequences in other areas.”

Funding help: The report starts with a cry for financial help, saying members are hard-pressed to afford the added costs of personal protective equipment, needed space for social distancing and other pandemic-related requirements. It cites one national survey finding that PPE, cleaning supplies and additional custodial and nursing staff will cost close to $500 per child, or roughly $700 million.

Purchasing help: The report recommends the state set up a statewide purchasing operation for school PPE, as well as technology. “A statewide mechanism to facilitate school district purchasing of medical supplies and technological devices is critical to restarting the educational process in 2020-2021,” it noted.

Guidance help: The report outlines no fewer than a half-dozen significant shifts in state guidance to schools since the start of the pandemic and repeatedly calls for the state to provide clearer guidance to districts. It’s been a common refrain from school leaders lately, as more than 200 schools districts and charter schools wait final state approval. “In its surveys,” the report read,” NJSBA found a high level of concern among school administrators and board members about a lack of guidance and direction from the state.”

One caveat is the state has in the last month issued more specific recommendations to districts on health and safety, including when to close in the case of an outbreak. But again, those are only recommendations and even in August, came after schools were already well into developing their plans.

Neighboring states and other nations: Some of the most informative sections of the report are what the neighboring states of New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania are planning, as well as comparable countries like Germany, Belgium, Israel and Norway. But that comes with caveats as well, as plans have changed in some of those locations. New York City, for one, announced just this week that it would delay reopening entirely.

Closing quote: “Our state’s school communities have made an exemplary effort to develop reopening plans. The New Jersey Departments of Education and Health also face the challenge of navigating uncharted waters and have recently responded to the concern of local school districts with firmer guidance, direction and support. Nonetheless, as this report illustrates, more needs to be done.”

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