Why NJ Schools Didn’t Move Away During A Big Storm

Credit: (Office of Governor Josue Lora / NJ).
October 26, 2021: Gov. Phil Murphy at the Statewide Traffic Management Center, where he urged residents to stay home if possible.

Among forecasts in a dreadful nor’easter, some districts in New Jersey closed schools on Tuesday while others decided to stay open and weather the storm. But, to the surprise of many, most of the schools were not far away.

The unrecognized reason: Under a State Law past year, distance learning is only considered an official school day during emergency school closures that last for more than three consecutive days. A single day of online instruction would not count as one of the required 180 annual school days.

“At the moment, it’s not an option for us to do a remote day in a weather emergency – snowy day, storms, anything like that,” said Dr Norma Fernandez, deputy superintendent of schools. of Jersey City, which canceled classes on Tuesday. “It won’t count for 180 days.”

Governor Phil Murphy has ordered all schools to resume in-person teaching this school year. But for many families and educators, Tuesday seemed like a good time to temporarily return to online learning.

After all, Murphy had declared a state of emergency Monday night in anticipation of the storm, which is expected to cause flash floods and strong winds. In A press release, his office advised residents to “stay off the road.”

Restriction on distance learning

“Use your common sense,” Murphy said at a press briefing Tuesday morning. “And, if you can, stay home.”

But the restriction on distance learning, established by state law passed in April 2020, virtually guaranteed that school districts would not switch to virtual classrooms on Tuesday. Even if teachers and families had the necessary technology, the online school day would not count towards the 180 day requirement.

Some advocates say the law should be updated to allow distance learning during short-term emergencies.

“Today and other weather emergencies, heat issues, etc. are examples of why we need legislation to offer optional virtual education,” said Dr Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, in an email. He added that his group is urging lawmakers to revise the law.

With distance learning out of the question, districts had to decide on Tuesday to either cancel classes entirely or stay open despite the impending storm. Districts that decided to cancel classes included Jersey City, Montclair, East Orange and Paterson, where officials were persuaded by Murphy’s order to stay home if possible.

“His office basically said that in a state of emergency people should stay off the roads,” Paterson Public Schools spokesman Paul Brubaker said.

Lots of no-shows

Newark, the state’s largest school district, has decided to keep schools open. The choice upset some teachers, who complained about unsafe driving conditions due to heavy rains on Tuesday morning.

“Why are these surrounding neighborhoods closed and Newark open?” Said a high school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation. “It really doesn’t make sense to any of us here.”

Although the schools remained open, many staff and students did not show up, the teacher said. Another Newark teacher said Tuesday morning that only about 30 students showed up to his elementary school.

A district spokesperson did not respond to an email Tuesday asking for the decision to remain open and the number of students in attendance.

State law limiting virtual education to longer-term shutdowns has upset some people who had to show up to school on Tuesday. But there may be a silver lining: the return of the snowy days, which many feared to disappear after the pandemic showed it was possible for students to attend classes on Zoom.

If a single day of distance learning does not count as an official school day, schools may be more inclined to cancel classes during a snowstorm. Fernandez, the Jersey City school manager, said she would rather give students a day of snow this winter instead of keeping them at home glued to their computers.

“It’s good to go outside and play,” she said. “After a while we all need these sanity days.”

– This story first appeared on Chalkbeat Newark.

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