Another Reopening Dilemma For NJ Schools: Students, Teachers Afraid To Come Back

School districts struggling to balance in-school/virtual instruction face another problem — educators, students unwilling to return to brick-and-mortar classrooms

Reopening schools in New Jersey may  be more than a month away, but districts and families are already facing some fundamental first-day questions.

When the doors open, will families have to send their children if the COVID-19 pandemic is still here, as is all but certain? What about teachers? And how will schools deal with decisions by parents and teachers about coming back?

Those are some of the wild cards that districts are contemplating as they develop reopening plans for September, regardless of the form they take.

The quandary is clear. Gov. Phil Murphy has declared that come September schools must be open for in-school instruction, at least to some degree. But it’s up to local districts and communities to decide how they meet that requirement, as long as they follow health and safety rules that include social distancing and wearing face coverings.

Districts are hammering out their plans, which are not due for another several weeks, and they are looking at all kinds of intricate combinations of in-person and remote instruction to ensure that schools are safe. Some are staggering schedules across days; others, weeks. What they have in common is that all are logistical jigsaw puzzles.

Basic questions left unanswered

But in its 104 pages of guidance and resources available to public schools, the state Department of Education has so far provided no path about how much choice parents and educators have in participating or not. Districts have been left to come up with their own criteria for that, too.

Jersey City this week said families will have the discretion to keep their children at home if they choose. Other districts are taking a harder line, requiring students to come in at least some of the time.

The only guidance the state has provided so far was then-Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet saying in June that whatever the choices, neither students nor teachers would be penalized if they chose to opt out.

That leaves a lot of leeway, however, and school board attorney David Rubin, whose firm serves dozens of districts statewide, said he has clients on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to whether families will have a choice.

And what’s his legal advice so far?

“Clearly districts will have to offer something in person, but what that looks like and whether there are those who will be skittish about showing up, districts will have to accommodate that in some way,” Rubin said.

“I think most would allow for some flexibility, as long as it is manageable,” he said.

Michael LaSusa, superintendent of schools in the Chathams, said there is no hard-and-fast policy in his district for a situation that will likely remain fluid for a while. So far, he said the district is trying to accommodate both teachers’ and families’ concerns.

“We have advised parents that we intend to allow them to opt for virtual instruction, if they have a concern about their child attending school,” he said in an email. “As our plans are preliminary at this point, we have not gone further than that.”

Options are not unlimited

As for teachers, LaSusa said that staff are being told they should individually raise the issue with the district to discuss the options, of which there are several but not limitless ones.

The state’s sick-leave requirements for all employees were relaxed early in the pandemic, under a new law that allowed more time for those at risk of the virus or with vulnerable members of their households. And under previous workplace and disability laws, accommodations must also be made to minimize the risk for educators and others.

The New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, has already raised alarms about its members being required to go into buildings where they may be at risk of contagion. There has been discussion of also requiring daily screenings, for instance, on top of required masks and distancing.

“We are already seeing a wide range of (teacher) requests,” said Rubin, the school board attorney. “Some have disabilities, and some are just nervous.”

But his advice is that just being nervous will likely not be enough for a teacher to opt out.

The fear factor

“To my knowledge, you have no right to stay at home just because you’re scared,” Rubin said. “But sifting through all of those will be a complex and time-consuming task.”

The department is so far staying mum on whether more guidance is to come. But the school boards association said that acting education commissioner Kevin Dehmer in a conference call with the association said additional guidelines may be forthcoming for parental choice, while leaving teacher choice to individual districts and their staffs.

As of Wednesday, there has been nothing yet, with the department only repeating that the guidelines have been drawn from input from all stakeholders.

“New Jersey’s school-reopening guidance is really a culmination of listening to many voices over the past four months,” said spokesman Michael Yaple.

“The department held, quite literally, hundreds upon hundreds of meetings with people and organizations in the school community, ranging from educators and school administrators to parents, students, support staff and health specialists,” he said. “These meetings helped identify areas where schools faced the greatest challenges, and they helped shape our guidance.”

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