Schools are the heartbeat of the community. They are instrumental in educating our youth, bringing us together under the Friday night lights, and reminding us of the perseverance and courage it takes to execute the Spring Musical.  So it is no surprise that we look to our schools for guidance and direction, particularly in the wake of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. 

Over the past several weeks, the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) has been working closely with the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) (see Governor’s update and NJDOE guidance (here and here) to ensure that schools are as prepared as possible, and most importantly, that students and communities are as safe as possible. 

Below are facts we know at this time, related to why schools may close their doors, as well as how schools are planning and preparing to keep the learning going.  We expect that there could be more updates this afternoon when the Governor speaks at 2:00 p.m.  

Why would schools close their doors? 

NJDOH guidance identifies school closure as a potential strategy to limit transmission within a community. 

When would schools close their doors? Do they have other options for providing learning?

Schools would close in the event that a board of education is provided a written directive by either the NJDOH or the health officer of the jurisdiction to institute a public health-related closure. It appears, this is what happened yesterday in Bergen County, when all schools in the county were ordered to close. In this event, the board of education may utilize home instruction to provide instructional services to enrolled students. 

What qualifies as home instruction? 

Home instruction services may include direct services, online instruction, services provided through contract with another district board of education, or any other means developed by the district to meet the needs of its students. 

Will students have to “make up” days that they are not physically in school?

Any day in which students impacted by a public health-related closure have access to home instruction services will count as a day in which the board of education has provided public school facilities toward its compliance with the 180-day requirement. It is important to note, however, that this flexibility to count a day applies strictly to public health-related school closures and not to any other type of closure or other days on which public school facilities are not made available. Closures made absent a written directive from either the NJDOH or the health officer of the jurisdiction will not count.  In addition, the Legislature is poised to consider a piece of legislation (S2027/A3813), which will allow districts to conduct virtual learning and have those days of learning possibly count towards the requirement that schools be in session for 180 days in a school year.  

How are schools preparing?

The NJDOE is asking each school district to develop a preparedness plan for the provision of home instruction to students in the event of a closure. The preparedness plan should also address the provision of appropriate special education and other services to students with disabilities and the provision of school nutrition benefits or services to eligible students. 

Is there a silver lining in this disruption?

While all of this work is being done to provide for the broader health and safety of our students and communities, one can’t help but notice the role that schools will continue to play in connecting our communities. Instead of congregating around the football field, students will be at home and connected through their learning. And as schools test their online learning platforms, perhaps a silver lining is an opportunity to innovate and learn from that innovation for the future. Because even in the absence of a physical environment, the schools will continue to be the heartbeat of the community, bringing our youth together as a community of 21st century learners. 

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