Since quarantine began in New Jersey, the public schools have remained closed (something that also occurred around the United States). Understandably, this created challenges on working parents, as they had to step up and not only figure out how to manage how to work from home, but also how to assist their children in doing virtual learning in order to still progress through the school year. It also threw a huge curveball to teachers, as they left their classroom one day used to traditional educational methods to having to immediately adapt to a virtual learning experience they had no training or time to truly plan for.
Up until today, there was still a lot of chatter regarding what would happen in the next school year both amongst parents and educators. Would school remain closed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and there still not being any cure/vaccine? Would schools do a hybrid model of at-home instruction and in-person learning in order to reduce how many students were in the classroom at a specific time? Would schools reopen and just simply enforce mask-wearing? All of these questions were answered by New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy today in a press briefing.
Murphy revealed just hours ago that schools indeed would be reopening in the fall in New Jersey, with every district being required to have some sort of in-person instruction come fall. He indicated the following would immediately change, though:
- Students will be required to stay six feet apart in classrooms and on buses. If there’s not enough room to accomplish this, there should be physical barriers put between each student’s desk and all desks should be in the same direction.
- Teachers will be required to wear masks, while masks for students will be strongly encouraged
- Masks will be mandatory for students when situations arise where social distancing cannot be accomplished
- When students have lunch, it must be a staggered situation in which not all students each at once. This will allow for social distancing as well as for the tables and chairs to be properly disinfected between each mealtime.
- Recess and gym will happen, but they will also be limited in terms of the size of students and students must be appropriately separated.
- Each district will be required to have a COVID-19 screening plan in place for staff and students. The nurse and the local health department will have to work in tandem to do contact tracing should cases arise.
- Floors should be marked with tape to show how far apart students should be walking in order to maintain social distancing.
- Bathrooms should be cleaned “between use as much as possible.”
- Districts will need to figure out a plan that at least meets the minimum standards laid out, but obviously their plans can exceed the minimum standards.
- Districts may do a hybrid of in-person learning and at-home learning, but NO DISTRICT (at this point in time) may do a complete at-home model.
It was noted at the press conference in which Murphy announced this that things could change by September, as we are still a few months away, indicating that if coronavirus began to significantly spike in September (or before) at-home instruction could be mandated again by the state. In addition, even if students began the school year as outlined above, if coronavirus suddenly started to spike they could be sent home to a complete at-home instruction model as mandated by the state.
Seeing as New Jersey has been one of the most proactive and cautious states surrounding the coronavirus, the announcement of forcing school districts to return was certainly not what everyone was necessarily expecting. While there is an inarguable benefit to in-person learning for students (as well as for parents who are working), the issue of teachers now becoming front line workers and having to put their health at risk is also a concern. We decided to speak with some in the educational sector to get their reactions to the new announcement.
A female teacher and Mother at a high performing district we spoke with told us that, “As a teacher and a mom, I am thrilled we will be returning to school. I understand why it was necessary to be home for three months this past school year, but home learning would not have been effective [in] starting the new school year.”
“Kids NEED to be in school and teachers NEED to teach in person,” she continued.
And what about the mask wearing protocols?
To this, she shared that “I will happily wear a mask if it means being in school. I have faith that my home district and the district where I teach will take the necessary precautions outlined in Governor Murphy’s plan. My children will be wearing a mask and I hope other parents make the same decision.”
Another teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, had a different perspective.
This teacher began with sharing their thoughts on the virtual learning that took place this past year.
“After teaching virtually for three months,” they began, “I can say this… was it ideal? No. Was it effective? Yes.”
They then shared their concerns with the new outlined protocols, noting that “Will most of the day be reminding kids to put on masks and maintaining social distance? Probably.”
“ I just don’t see how students and teachers should need to be put into potential harm’s way when there is an alternative,” they added.
A former teacher who holds a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education had similar sentiments to share.
“There is no denying there his a massive benefit to students obtaining in-person instruction as compared to having to sit on a Zoom call or watch a video,” they began with sharing. “There is no way they can attain the same educational benefit in that manner, and it’s very likely there are a vast number of students being negatively affected in terms of their educational progress.”
“With that being said,” they continued, “there is also a major concern by sending kids back to school. First of all, not requiting kids to wear masks but encouraging them to doesn’t make any sense. If masks are supposed to be a benefit in slowing the spared of coronavirus, why would they not be required? Also, there’s a major risk being put on the teachers who are in the classrooms. Say a kid is not wearing a mask and starts coughing or sneezing? Now those germs are in the air and even if children aren’t typically affected by coronavirus, adults are. And if a child is a carrier and gets an adult sick, who then goes home and potentially spreads the coronavirus to friends and family, who then spread it to others, well… it’s almost like we’re back to square one.”
Still another educator shared similar sentiments. They shared that “I don’t believe we should have in-person schooling in September as it will be impossible to social distance due to the number of students and lack of available space. I also don’t think teachers will be able to enforce mask-wearing on students considering Murphy said he ‘strongly suggests’ the wearing of masks.”
Interestingly, while public schools have remained closed (due to the fact that they end in June anyway), daycares recently reopened in New Jersey. We talked to a worker in the daycare sector to see what their experiences have been like thus far.
“It’s been frustrating,” they shared with us, “as all of the guidelines the state has provided are exceptionally hard to adhere to and are making our jobs nearly impossible.”
“Specifically,” they continued, “it is extremely tough to keep on top of the kids wearing masks and reminding them to put their masks on. It’s also really tough to social distance in classrooms where there are smaller children who share toys. To say it’s been challenging would be an understatement.”
Ultimately, what will end up happening with public schools remains to be seen, as a lot will continue to depend on data and spikes of the virus. If today’s plan becomes a reality, though, there will definitely be a lot of uncharted territories for both teachers, parents, and students to overcome.