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‘It is still very much a district-by-district, case-by-case’ decision, says official with the state’s most powerful teachers union

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By John Mooney

For all the fanfare surrounding Friday’s guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to reopen schools nationwide, New Jersey’s famous home rule still appears the prevailing guidance when it comes to public education in this state.

That seemed the general reaction from education leaders and stakeholders here, as the 35-page report from the CDC about how and when schools can reopen starts to sink in — and by and large, not change much.

Scott Rocco is superintendent of the sweeping Hamilton Township district whose 11,700 students and 23 schools have been in some form of remote or hybrid instruction since the start of the school year.

Rocco said he appreciated the CDC’s detailed guidance as providing more backing for practices already in place. And as he seeks to bring more students back to in-person learning in the spring, that research is no small thing. But Rocco said that will still be a local decision, one aided by already significant guidance and data from the state.

“A lot of it is what we have been doing already,” Rocco said. “Nothing in here that says, ‘Wow, that’s different from what I was thinking.’ ”

Already looking to get more students back 

With the data on infections and transmission pointing in the right direction lately, he added, Hamilton’s senior staff was already looking at options for bringing back more students.

“We’ll try to open up a little more,” Rocco said. “What that will look like, we’re not sure yet.”

The power of local decision-making is nothing new in New Jersey, even long before the COVID-19 pandemic. But it has become a prevailing mantra for Gov. Phil Murphy as he seeks to guide more schools to move to in-person instruction but lets them decide for themselves.

That has led to the widely disparate forms of instruction taking place in the state as the pandemic continues; just under 100 districts are operating with all in-person instruction but twice as many have all-remote and the vast middle a mix of the two.

The CDC’s guidance was seen as a potential balm to unify schools across the country to move toward more in-person instruction and especially send a message to those resistant to the move.

The report said that schools could safely reopen under certain well-known protocols, including mask-wearing and social-distancing. But it also threw in conditions around a complex formula of community transmission, and withheld judgment on the thorny topic of teacher vaccinations. In fact, it held back on many mandates at all.

“I want to be clear with the release of this operational strategy, CDC is not mandating that schools reopen,” Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director, said on Friday. “These recommendations simply provide schools a long needed roadmap for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community.”

Front and center on the issue have been teachers unions, including in New Jersey, which have been hesitant — if not outwardly opposed — to moving to in-class instruction if it could put their members at risk.

NJEA praises research-based findings

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s most powerful teachers union, has so far not said much publicly about the new CDC guidelines beyond praise for the researched-based findings and recommendations.

Steve Baker, the NJEA’s communications director, said Tuesday that a letter to its 200,000 members would likely go out in the next week summarizing the guidelines but also saying they should be only part of ongoing conversations between educators and their districts.

“It was a breath of fresh air to listen to the CDC talk about these issues in a very science-based way,” Baker said of the Friday announcement. “It provides educators with a lot more confidence.

“But it doesn’t make the decisions any easier where some of the issues still remain,” he said. “I think it is still very much a district-by-district, case-by-case basis.”

Nevertheless, leaders of the American Federation of Teachers — the national union representing many of the country’s urban districts, including Newark — sent a strong signal Tuesday night that resistance may be softening. The AFT released a poll of its members that said a vast majority were ready to return to the classroom.

“Teachers want a path to safely return to their classrooms because they understand the importance of in-school learning for their kids,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT. “If we can implement commonsense safety protocols, we can not only open, we can do it safely and with the overwhelming support of teachers and support personnel.”

Header:  Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash