As our eyes recover from an initial review of the New Jersey Department of Education’s 104-page “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education,” we can almost hear thousands of keyboards simultaneously clicking across the State, as school officials begin developing plans to re-open their districts for some degree of mandated in-person instruction in the Fall of 2020. Clearly, no “one size fits all” plan would be appropriate for all of New Jersey’s 580+ operating school districts, each of which is uniquely situated in terms of budgeting, staffing, student population, physical facilities, and educational offerings. Accordingly, while “The Road Back” provides an outline of issues that must be addressed in each district’s plan, NJDOE has left the specifics to the discretion of each individual district, within certain parameters.
Specifically, each school district is directed to establish: (1) a “Restart Committee” (comprised of administrators, board members, local union representatives, educators, parents, and students) to develop its re-opening plan; and (2) individual school-based “Pandemic Response Teams” (comprised of administrators, staff, and parents representing a gender- and racially-diverse cross-section of the school community) to “centralize, expedite, and implement” the district’s plan. Each district’s plan must include policies and procedures addressing each of the following items:
- Mandatory re-opening for in-person instruction “in some capacity” (which may include staggered schedules during which students receive some on-site instruction and some remote instruction during any given day, week, or other appropriate time period);
- Screening of students and staff for exposure history and current COVID-19 symptoms;
- Isolating symptomatic individuals;
- Contact tracing and confidential reporting of positive test results to local health officials, staff, and families;
- Physical distancing between individuals in school buildings and on school buses wherever possible;
- Where physical distancing is not possible, using physical barriers or re-orienting furniture;
- Increasing frequency of cleaning and disinfection of school buildings, equipment/supplies, and school buses;
- Requiring all staff and visitors over two years of age to wear face coverings unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health;
- Requiring all students to wear face coverings where social distancing cannot be maintained, with certain exceptions as necessary for young children and children with disabilities;
- Promoting frequent hand washing;
- Minimizing the use of shared objects;
- Ensuring adequate ventilation;
- Providing physical guides on floors and signage on walls to guide physical distancing;
- Staggering meal times in group dining areas and discontinuing self-service food options;
- Staggering recess times and demarcating outdoor space to promote distancing during recess and physical education;
- Requiring extracurricular activities and external organizations using school facilities to follow the district’s protocols;
- Complying with student athletics guidance issued by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (“NJSIAA”);
- Assessing and altering the roles of staff members as appropriate in light of access to technology, social and emotional health, child care issues, and on-site building logistics needs;
- Training staff and preparing curriculum, instruction, and assessments to address learning gaps created by school closures;
- Prioritizing in-person instruction for those students most in need (including, but not limited to, students with disabilities, English language learners, homeless youth, and low-income students);
- Prioritizing the provision of technology (or, alternatively, in-person instruction) to students who are otherwise without access to a device and/or internet connectivity; and
- Providing staff with professional development in all areas necessary to implement the re-opening plan.
While not required, NJDOE also recommends that school districts: (1) adopt protocols to address the social and emotional trauma that staff and students may have faced during the pandemic; (2) employ multi-tiered systems to identify students in need of extra support and to engage families in collaborative problem-solving; and (3) consider expanding before-school and after-school programs and providing transportation to external child care facilities.
With respect to finances, districts are encouraged to engage in cooperative purchasing programs for cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment, and technology items. NJDOE reminds districts that aid under the fiscal year 2021 State budget has not yet been finalized, and that Commissioner approval is required before a district may tap into its emergency reserve account to finance unanticipated expenses.
This week, many school districts across the State are beginning to implement their summer programs. However, September is just around the corner and time is of the essence, as NJDOE has directed districts to “strive to share their scheduling plans with staff, families, and students at least four weeks before the start of the school year in order to allow families to plan child care and work arrangements.” As school districts develop their re-opening plans, questions will inevitably arise.
If you have questions, please contact us
At Scarinci Hollenbeck, our school law attorneys are working tirelessly every day to help our school district clients comply with the maze of ever-evolving guidelines and regulations impacting school operations during these unprecedented times. If you’d like to have a conversation with one of our school law attorneys, please reach out to me at 732-568-8374 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-896-4100.