New Jersey advised all public schools to plan for building closures during a potential coronavirus outbreak and announced the state will count “home instruction” days toward the required 180-day school year if districts are ordered to close by state or local health officials.
The state informed superintendents in a memo sent Thursday evening, saying home instruction can include online learning or other means developed by the district to meet the needs of its students.
Every district must create a plan for providing equitable instruction, including appropriate special education services, according to the memo. Those plans must be submitted to the county superintendent.
The guidance allows schools to keep students at home without having to schedule makeup days at the end of the school year. But it raises a litany of logistical questions as schools must now plan for days, and possibly weeks, of home instruction unlike anything most have done before.
“We would be in uncharted territory,” said Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
It’s unclear how many schools are equipped to provide a remote education. Not all students have an internet connection at home and not all schools have enough devices to send home.
State lawmakers had pressed the state Department of Education to give schools guidance, saying they worried schools would remain open out of fear they wouldn’t be able meet the minimum 180-day school year.
“If we have the ability to limit the risk to both our children and their teachers while continuing their education, that’s something that would be smart to do,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union.
New Jersey already allows home or online instruction in special circumstances, including when individual students have temporary or chronic health conditions, according to the state. However, those rules were not created to apply to the closure of entire school districts.
Some schools have also experimented with online learning days for bad weather, but the state doesn’t count them toward the mandatory 180-day school year unless teachers are in school and facilities are physically open.
Baker called home instruction for entire districts “far from ideal” but said it is in students best interest to keep learning.
The NJEA is worried, however, that students without internet access won’t get an equitable experience learning from home, Baker said.
“We urge districts and the New Jersey Department of Education to do everything in their power to ensure that no students are denied their right to public education because they are unable to access the internet,” he said.