In response to concerns about safely reopening schools, Gov. Phil Murphy has eliminated the requirement that New Jersey students receive in-person instruction at least part of the time, and families will now be able to choose a “virtual-only” option. On July 24, 2020, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) issued guidance on how schools should implement remote learning.

“The Department is releasing this guidance to make clear that this option should be allowed by school districts as part of their reopening plans,” Gov. Murphy said. “We have heard from numerous parents and families who have asked for this, and we have heard them loud and clear. Our top priority is keeping students, their families and educators safe. And, to do that, flexibility, local decision-making and empowering parents and educators are all critical.”

NJDOE Full-time Remote Learning Guidance

As discussed in greater detail in a prior article, on June 26, 2020, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) released “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education,” which aims to assist schools with reopening in the fall. The guidance is built on the premise that school buildings will open in some capacity for in-person instruction and operations this Fall. Nonetheless, the guidance acknowledges that the health and safety standards required might necessitate the establishment of “hybrid” learning models under which schools deliver both in-person and remote learning.

The NJDOE “Road Back” guidance uses the term “anticipated minimum standards” to refer to items that school districts should incorporate into their reopening plans as definite components related to health, safety, and operations. On July 24, the NJDOE issued an update to clarify expectations regarding fulltime remote learning options for families. The update includes an additional anticipated minimum standard which provides that, in addition to the methods and considerations explicitly referenced in the guidance for scheduling students for in-person, remote, or hybrid learning, “families/guardians may submit, and school districts shall accommodate, requests for fulltime remote learning.”

Under the guidance, remote learning requests may include any service or combination of services that would otherwise be delivered on an in-person or hybrid schedule, such as instruction, behavioral and support services, special education and related services. A family/guardian may request that some services be delivered entirely remotely, while other services follow the same schedule they otherwise would according to the district’s reopening plan.

To “ensure clarity and consistency in implementation of such fulltime remote learning,” the NJDOE advises that school districts adopt policies that address, at a minimum:

  • Unconditional Eligibility for Fulltime Remote Learning: Eligibility can’t be conditioned on a family/guardian demonstrating a risk of illness or other selective criteria. This includes students with disabilities who attend in-district schools or receiving schools (county special services school districts, educational services commissions, jointure commissions, Katzenbach School for the Deaf, regional day schools, college operated programs, and approved private schools for students with disabilities).
  • Procedures for Submitting Fulltime Remote Learning Requests: Schools must clearly define procedures that a family/guardian must follow to submit a request for fulltime remote learning, including requests to begin the school year receiving full-time remote learning and requests to transition from in-person or hybrid services to fulltime remote learning during the school year. Procedures should meet the following guidelines: 1. Clearly define deadlines for submitting a request and district’s expected timeline for approving requests; 2. Identify points of contact for questions and concerns; 3. Clearly describe information or documentation that the family/guardian must submit with their request. In accordance with #1 above, such “documentation shall not exclude any students from the school’s fulltime remote learning option, but rather be limited to the minimum information needed to ensure proper recordkeeping and implementation of successful remote learning. 4. For students with disabilities, districts must determine if an IEP meeting or an amendment to a student’s IEP is needed for fulltime remote learning.” Upon satisfaction of these minimum procedures, the district must approve the student’s fulltime remote learning request.
  • Scope and Expectations of Fulltime Remote Learning: A student participating in the board’s fulltime remote learning option must be afforded the “same quality and scope of instruction and other educational services as any other student otherwise participating in district programs.” Fulltime remote learning must adhere to length of school day requirements pursuant N.J.A.C. 6A:32-8.3, local attendance policies, and any other local policies governing the delivery of services to, and district expectations of, students participating in remote programs and their families. For families/guardians requesting that a service transition from in-person or hybrid delivery to fulltime remote delivery, the district must clearly define any additional services, procedures, or expectations that will occur during the transition period. Districts should endeavor to provide supports and resources to assist families/guardians, particularly those of younger students, with meeting the expectations of the district’s remote learning option.
  • Procedures to Transition from Fulltime Remote Learning to In-Person Services: 1.Boards must define the minimum amount of time a student must spend in fulltime remote learning before being eligible to transition to in-person services. This will allow families/guardians to make the arrangements needed to effectively serve students’ home learning needs and will support educators in ensuring continuity of instruction. 2. Boards must clearly define procedures that a family/guardian must follow to submit a request to transition from fulltime remote learning to in-person services, including any relevant timelines, points of contact for questions and concerns, and information or documentation that must accompany a request. 3. Boards must define the specific student and academic services that will accompany a student’s transition from fulltime remote learning to in-person learning to better assist families/guardians anticipate their students’ learning needs and help educators maintain continuity of services. School districts that offer Pre-K should consult their Pre-K curriculum providers regarding appropriate measures to assess Pre-K students’ learning progress during the transition from fulltime remote learning to in-person learning.
  • Reporting: School districts will be expected to report to the NJDOE data regarding participation in fulltime remote learning. Data will include the number of students participating in fulltime remote learning by each of the following subgroups: economically disadvantaged; major racial and ethnic groups; students with disabilities; and English learners.
  • Procedures for Communicating District Policy with Families: The NJDOE emphasizes the importance of clear and frequent communication with families/guardians, in their home language, to help ensure that this important flexibility is as readily accessible as possible. Communication must include, at a minimum, information regarding: 1. Summaries of, and opportunities to review, the district’s fulltime remote learning policy; 2. Procedures for submitting fulltime remote learning requests; 3. Scope and expectations of fulltime remote learning; 4. The transition from fulltime remote learning to in-person services and vice-versa; and 5. The district’s procedures for ongoing communication with families and for addressing families’ questions or concerns.

Next Steps

The NJDOE’s latest guidance adds to the considerations New Jersey school districts must take into account as they develop policies and procedures for the new school year. As school districts work to navigate the so-called “road back,” it is imperative to stay on top of the latest COVID-19 updates from the NJDOE, CDC, and other local/state/federal agencies. The attorneys of Scarinci Hollenbeck are also here to provide much-needed guidance every step of the way.

If you have questions, please contact us

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, John Geppert, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-896-4100.