To Open, or Not to Open? That is the Back-to-School Question

Asking questions about going back to school during covid-19As the COVID-19 virus continues to spread amongst us, we must sadly accept that there is no risk-free decision that can be made with regards to re-opening our schools. From my conversations with superintendents, educators, and parents, it is clear the decision about whether to re-open our schools will require a delicate balance of numerous, ever-changing factors. This complicated decision should solely be guided by science and not politics.

As a father and a lawmaker, I firmly believe that our schools are not daycares, and full remote learning in the fall would be the best option. I understand the scientific research that clearly illustrates that physical interaction in relationships with friends and teachers are essential for social and academic learning, especially during early childhood and adolescent years. But is it worth the risk? In my mind, I have struggled with how restaurants are still shuttered for indoor dining, and gyms are still closed for regular activities, but yet, schools –which have hundreds of children and dozens of educators—are permitted to open in September, especially after Governor Murphy’s recent decision to issue regionally-focused guidance based on health data.

Clearly, we all want to resume our normal lives and schedules – which include having children back in classrooms; unfortunately, these are not normal times. Contrary to what some believe, children are not immune to this virus. As we’ve seen throughout the country, COVID outbreaks are occurring in states where schools and universities that have reopened already (Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina).

Unless the Governor makes a statewide decision in the next week or two regarding schools going all virtual in the fall, it looks like each district will have to make that decision for itself and its school community. We know that there is not a one-size-fits-all blueprint for school reopening. New Jersey’s very diverse communities and 600+ school districts all have varying resources and facilities. What works for a K-8 district in South Jersey, might not work for a densely populated school district in Hudson County.

The Governor has offered school districts the option of starting fully remote in the fall. He made this announcement last week for those school districts that are unable to meet the guidelines to bring students back for in-person instruction. Schools still need to have an approved plan by the New Jersey Department of Education that would bring children and educators back to school once the requirements are met. Since then, dozens of New Jersey school districts have opted to start the fall remotely including the State’s largest school district, Newark. Closer to home, here in Burlington County, districts such as Willingboro, Palmyra and Burlington Township are starting the school year fully remote.

However, when these schools do re-open, or for those schools that are offering either full day or hybrid in-person instruction, I believe that we owe our children, teachers, custodians, and administrators a safe learning environment. It is incumbent upon our elected officials, I included, to provide the financial resources to ensure that is the case.

Significant financial resources from the state will be needed for the schools that do offer in-person instruction to ensure the safest learning environment possible. Therefore, the Governor and the New Jersey Department of Education must work with the Legislature to find that funding and develop protocols that should include, but are not limited to:

  • Assisting working families with childcare options because we know that districts offering hybrid options or full remote, as opposed to full week instruction, is difficult for working parents to navigate;
  • Ensuring an adequate supply of personal protective equipment and sanitization materials because shortages would negatively impact the delivery of in-person education and the health of students; and
  • Meeting students’ technology needs because if/when schools are shut down due to an outbreak, or if districts choose the all remote option, all students must be able to transition to remote learning seamlessly.

So, there is no easy answer to the question of whether or not schools should open in September. But one thing is for certain –we must remember not to chastise or belittle our neighbors who may think or feel differently than you do. The decision on whether or not to send your child back to school is one that each family must make for themselves.

That’s my take, what’s yours?


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