Guidance to Reopen Schools

Governor Phil Murphy and Department of Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet announced on June 26 the release of “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education,” which provides guidance to reopen schools this fall.

The plan announces that, absent a change in public health data, public schools will open for in-person instruction and in some capacity at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. Individual school districts together with community stakeholders will be expected to develop plans that best fits their own district’s needs.

The guidance sets the minimum standards for returning to school and describes several health and safety standards to be prioritized in school reopening:

  1. Social distancing: Schools and districts must allow for social distancing within the classroom. This can be achieved by ensuring students are seated at least six feet apart. If schools are not able to maintain this physical distance, additional modifications should be considered. These include physical barriers between desks and turning desks to face the same direction (rather than facing each other)or having students sit on only one side of a table and spaced apart.
  2. Face coverings: School staff and visitors are required to wear face coverings unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health or the individual is under two years of age. Students are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings and are required to do so when social distancing cannot be maintained, unless doing so would inhibit the student’s health. It is necessary to acknowledge that enforcing the use of face coverings may be impractical for young children or certain individuals with disabilities.
  3. Limited capacity: It is recommended that students and staff be seated at least six feet apart in class when practicable. When weather allows, windows should be opened to allow for greater air circulation.
  4. Cleaning/disinfecting: Procedures must be implemented by each school district for the sanitization of school buildings and school buses. Increased hand washing measures are also important for students and staff.

These provisions are informed by Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, which call for protecting staff and students who are at higher risk for severe illness, such as providing options for telework and virtual learning; providing reasonable accommodations for older adults (65 years and older) and individuals with serious underlying medical conditions; and, when possible, keeping early childhood students apart during naptime and avoiding close-group activities like reading circles.

Other provisions in the guidance include:

  1. Cafeteria directors should consider staggering meal times to allow for social distancing; discontinuing self-serve or buffet lines; having students eat meals outside or in their classrooms; and requiring staff to disinfect eating areas between groups.
  2. Recess should also be held in staggered shifts, with efforts to promote social distancing and hygiene protocols.
  3. Cohorting: Schools may wish to identify small groups of students and keep them together (cohorting) to ensure that student and staff groupings are as static as possible, thereby limiting exposure to large groups of students.
  4. School bus operators should encourage social distancing. CDC guidelines recommend seating on a school bus such that there is one student seated per row, skipping a row between each child, if possible. Barriers separating rows of bus seats may also be considered. If social distancing is not feasible, face coverings must be worn by students who are able to do so. Increased ventilation (i.e. opening windows) is also recommended in the guidelines.

As being able to reopen schools is dependent upon health data and informed by experts in the health field, districts will need to be prepared to switch to remote instruction at any time during the 2020-2021 school year should circumstances change. The guidance stresses that each school district should be working to ensure every student has a device and internet connectivity available, and it identifies funding streams available to school districts to ensure students have access to technology.

Districts should strive to share preliminary scheduling plans to reopen schools with staff, families, and students at least four weeks before the start of the school year in order to allow families to plan childcare and work arrangements.

Click here for a summary of the guidance.

Click here for the full guidance.

For more on the Jersey City School Board’s plans to reopen schools, please see Sally Deering’s coverage J.C. School Board prepares for September reopening.


Header: Dickinson High School, Jersey City Times file photo



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Lewis Spears surrounded by young men of color

Fatherhood and Mentoring Young Men of Color

Lewis Spears Reflects on His Life and Work

Sometimes it pays to be bookish. Or so it would seem, given the experience of Lewis Spears, founder of Kismet of Kings, an organization dedicated to mentoring young men of color.

That he wasn’t a jock became painfully clear early in life. He remembers standing in the outfield during baseball practice at the Booker T. Houses where he grew up. As he humorously describes it, his friends were catching fly balls “with one hand, while spinning with their eyes closed.”  But not Spears. “I would miss it every time. I sucked so bad at it.”  At the Boys and Girls Club he learned that he “sucked” at basketball too.

But there was a place Spears shined: school. Spears was a born student. He could read a story and recite it back to someone word for word. He memorized poems and plays.  He competed in spelling bees. “I was always the teacher’s pet,” he confessed. He would go on to get a bachelor’s degree in African American studies at Rutgers, a master’s degree in urban education from NJCU and a master’s of education concentrating in school leadership from Harvard.

Talking to Spears, it quickly becomes apparent that he still has the sharp mind that made him a favorite of teachers. He often gives the exact date for the major events in his life; in public appearance he recites long poems to highlight a point he is making. He is half performer, half motivational speaker.

Kismet of Kings was born out of tragedy. The year was 2009. Spears was studying at Rutgers; his beloved cousin, Jalil, would come to visit. In Jersey City, Jalil could come off as “street” but at Rutgers, he was a different person, Spears remembers.

“He was freer, he felt like he could be normal. But then when he went back home to Jersey City, you know, …” his voice trails off.

Spears is clearly protective of Jalil’s memory. “He got involved in activities I didn’t know about.”

On April 25 of that year Jalil was gunned down at the Booker T. houses where Spears had grown up. “Jalil wanted to be a lawyer. It was a dream denied.”

Of course, Spears was already acutely aware of the challenges faced by young men of color growing up in tough neighborhoods. “As you can imagine growing up in Jersey City in the projects, anything that you think of negatively, I probably experienced.  People using drugs and all that good stuff, to abuse and neglect. I remember not having any lights when we move outside of the projects.”

When it rained, their Section 8 apartment on Bostwick Avenue would flood. But Spears had it better than others. “Some of our friends went without food. I don’t ever remember going without food.”

I ask Spears what he attributes his success to. “[T]o being surrounded by a bunch of women … my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mom, her two sisters … I had two female cousins … being informed and just being sensitive and understanding and learning about things that are important to them,” he responds.

Spears’ father lived across the street in the Lafayette projects with his girlfriend and her children. “We would see each other by chance,” Spears said. Spears occasionally ran into him at a small mini-mart between the Booker T. and Lafayette projects. His father might buy him a bag of potato chips.  Then they would go their separate ways.

Spears’ experience wasn’t unique. “Most of the young men I knew, we grew up without dads in our houses.” But even in their absence, fathers played an outsize role in their imaginations.

“I do remember back in the day when someone would say, like, ‘My father, x, y, and z,’ whatever that was. I remember, like, like thinking about that, like, oh, wow, cool, your father. You know what I mean? Like, it’s almost like a shock, like, oh, wow, your father, cool. That’s pretty cool. Like you, you would almost … I don’t know how to describe it. Like you would almost set it apart as somebody who’s special because his dad did x, y, and z, you know what I mean? Most of us had our moms or our cousins or our grandparents, but like when your dad did something, you were very intentional about saying, oh, my dad did this.”

Spears becomes reflective.

“Growing up, [you] feel a certain longing or a certain sense of loss. Dad wasn’t that involved. I felt disposable, unloved and unwanted, like maybe I wasn’t good enough.”

At the age of 24, Spears summoned up the courage to confront his father.  “I decided to go to therapy. I used my therapist like a coach in the boxing ring. I had enough guts to call my dad to try to force some kind of relationship. I said you weren’t really there for me.  He said ‘I was there for you. I bought you Super Nintendo and I took you to get your license when you were 17.’ He focused on two things in my 17 years of living. I’m saying are you serious?”

Spears came to appreciate that his father had tried in his own way.

“Dad never had money. I would call him for the latest sneaker. Dad felt defeated.”

With the help of his therapist, Spears came to understand that his father had had his own “language of love,” which came down to “acts of kindness” like offering to wash Spears’ clothes or sharing recipes. When his father died, they were in a “good space.”

Spears found male guidance elsewhere. “One thing that made me aspire to do more was that I’ve always had mentors, mentors in the church, mentors in the school. They would always tell me, education is the way out.”

Spears’ cousin, Sean, ran a barbershop and supported Spears’ endeavors. One of Spears’ teachers, Don Howard, who later became the principal at Public School 12, would take him to car shows and to his house for dinner. Spears’ friend and mentor Alfonso Williams would “have the conversations. … He knew what we were dealing with, a Christian guy who understood the street.” Kabili Tayari of the NAACP took him on retreats and “exposed us to our greatness.” Spears joined the NAACP Youth Taskforce and attended a New Jersey Black Issues Convention.

After graduating, Spears went to work as a teacher in the Jersey City schools. “I made more than my mom and my dad combined as a teacher” Spears adds, seemingly amazed at his climb out of poverty. But Spears, even with his new relative affluence, was depressed. Ever since Jalil’s death, he’d wanted to do something for the struggling young men he’d grown up with.

At Christmas dinner in 2012, Spears’ friend, Sharmonique Henry (now a board member of Kismet of Kings), challenged him to start the organization dedicated to mentoring young men of color he’d been dreaming about.  For several years,Spears had been running an after-school program for Jerry Walker, a local community organizer, with responsibility for 250 kids — and had formed a sub-group of young men. Spears would invite speakers to talk about fatherlessness. “We would talk about how you navigate the streets when the bully is on one corner and the drug dealer is on another.” They talked about peer pressure and academic excellence.  The group at Team Walker became the seed of Kismet of Kings, which became a 501(c)(3) in 2016.

And what about the name?   “Kismet is a word derives from Egypt, and it means like fate or destiny, fate or destiny Kings. I needed them to know that they could essentially be business owners, that they could be stockbrokers, they could own their own homes … that they are kings … in their space… and that day that they have to take control of their destiny and what they… know to be true for themselves,” he explains.

Spears, father of two young boys, just celebrated ten years of marriage to Dr. Myriam Spears. In January of this year he gave up his job teaching in order to devote himself full time to Kismet of Kings. The organization is supported by a combination of state and local grants and private donations. He works with around 25 young men, meeting them twice a week. The organization has connected with over 500 young men through an annual convention it holds. One of his mentees recently graduated from college and has returned to work with Spears. He hopes to hire more former mentees shortly.

The focus is character and leadership development. “If your dad isn’t involved, it makes it essential to your development. K of K is a brotherhood that pushes the idea of togetherness. It transcends age, sexual preference and intellect. If you are a man, this is what is expected of you.”

Spears describes his work with one young man who was failing trigonometry. “No one said anything, not his teachers or his parents or guidance counselor. I said, yo what’s up with that?  I put a fire under his behind, and he got straight As. I held him accountable. I told him he had to sign up for tutoring. He had to show me receipts for tutoring. That he had to check in with me every week. I needed to talk to his teachers.”

The purpose of Kismet of Kings “is to serve as a life coach and mentor. I invest in young mens’ lives to change their trajectory and destiny. We as a society, sometimes we view black and brown young men as disposable, and because of that many of our young men feel invisible, that they aren’t being seen and that they aren’t heard. If we restore value back into them, if we let them know that they are loved, I think that a lot of the other issues around, violence and school dropouts will be alleviated.”








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No Immediate Cuts in State Aid to Schools in Murphy’s Revised 2020 Spending Plan

But increases to direct aid, as well as boosts to preschool and special education, end up on cutting-room floor

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit

Full story link – HERE.

By John Mooney

As he scrambles to close a multibillion-dollar budget hole, Gov. Phil Murphy will likely face little choice but to take a sizable sum out of New Jersey’s public schools, which represents the single largest slice of state spending.

But at least for now, schools have been left largely spared.

On Friday, the Murphy administration presented its revisions to the fiscal 2020 budget in the face of COVID-19, announcing more than $5 billion in overall cuts and deferrals across state government.

That included more than $330 million Murphy and state treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio pulled back in proposed increases in state school aid for the next academic year and all funding for preschool expansion and for extraordinary special-education costs.

But they did not call for a cut in existing direct aid and said districts would get the same overall amount they saw in 2019-2020.

Allotments to be announced

An administration official said precise allotments for each district would be announced soon, once the state’s school-funding formula was run with the same amounts used in fiscal 2020.

That likely means districts that stood to gain under the formula last year would do so again, and those already facing cuts would also would need to make them.

“The formula is being rerun,” the official said in a background briefing with reporters on Friday. “So the districts that are overfunded, the reductions are going to follow the statutory reductions, and those overfunded amounts will be reallocated to the districts who are underfunded. But no additional funding is being pumped into those underfunded districts.”

School leaders over the weekend were still waiting for details from the administration to judge how their districts would fare, but several were relieved that there weren’t any blanket cuts in the offing, at least not yet.

“Some expected the kind of 5% across-the-board cuts that we all experienced back in ‘09 and ‘10,” said Elisabeth Ginsburg, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, representing more than 100 mostly suburban districts. “Needless to say, those individuals are relieved.”

Others said they were also pleased that Murphy was at least following the formula under the state’s School Funding Reform Act, albeit at a lower level.

“It is encouraging to learn that the governor appears committed to school funding that remains aligned to SFRA, even if on a proportional basis,” said Mike LaSusa, superintendent of Chatham Schools. “When Gov. Christie slashed funding a decade ago, he did so with zero relationship to the formula and that led to a decade of haphazard funding.”

What will September bring?

Nonetheless, he and others said big questions remain going forward, including what the precise figures will be and, of course, what schools will look like come September.

“If, for example, we learn by the end of June what we can expect in terms of funding, and we also learn that it will not be possible to run athletics in the fall, that would help us make sound decisions now,” LaSusa said.

“We all understand there is pain ahead; the sooner the governor can inform us of the particulars of the pain, the better we can manage it,” he added.

A big question also surrounds what happens after this extended fiscal year ends and the next begins.

Murphy is slated to announce a new state budget for fiscal 2021 in late August. In an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” this weekend, he said schools would surely be among those facing cuts and possible layoffs if the state does not see significant relief from the federal government.

“This includes potentially laying off educators, firefighters, police, EMS, health care workers,” Murphy said. “This is not abstract. This is real.”

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, said the federal government — even beyond this year — will need to step up to avert a further crisis in the schools.

“Flat state funding will get us through the next few months, coupled with $400 million in federal emergency funds to help reopen schools safe and ready for students,” he said in an email yesterday.

“But the forecast of big cuts in state school aid to be backfilled with new rounds of federal crisis funds is not a viable long-term strategy,” he wrote. “The only solution is a major, recurring infusion of federal funds over the next three to five years, to be reduced only when the state revenue sufficiently recovers to make up the shortfall.”


Header: Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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Students Face the New Realities of College Life, Virtual and Otherwise

As freshmen prepare to adapt, educators and administrators are still in the early stages of ‘shaping the new normal’ of a college education: part two

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit

Full story link – HERE.

By Sheila Noonan

Kaitlyn Huamani, a Bernards High School senior, is headed for the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

faculty club

Photo by Aubrey Rose Odom on Unsplash

Huamani knows it’s possible, depending on the pandemic’s course, that her first USC semester could be spent at her Gladstone home. “I’d be disappointed, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world,” she said. “Leaving college mid-semester, with new friendships being formed and college activities under way, would be more difficult, but it’s best to be safe and follow guidance that’s in my best interests. I’ll just take it day by day.”

Such are the new considerations for today’s students, as the COVID-19 pandemic remakes a college education or even what it means to be “on campus.”

Until there’s an approved vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, administrators face the challenge of creating a similar college experience to what students and parents heard about on campus tours.

“The end of college as we know it no longer seems like a pipe dream or a nightmare — but a looming possibility,” wrote Steven Mintz, a senior adviser at Hunter College in New York City and frequent contributor to Inside Higher Education. “The vibrancy, energy, campus spirit, the dynamism of the face-to-face classroom and, yes, much of the collegiality of college life are threatened and aren’t readily replaced electronically.”

The remaking of college life also comes — at least in the short term — with tensions and hardships. Some displeased current students have been vocal about their virtual education this spring, with online petitions and lawsuits, seeking tuition refunds similar to those residential students received for room, board and parking.

New Jersey colleges have pushed back. In an online message to her community, The College of New Jersey’s president Kathryn A. Foster responded with an emphatic “no,” noting among other points that students were able to make progress toward earning their degrees.

Some virtual disappointment

The spring’s virtual instruction disappointed some students, but college administrators say transitioning class and campus services formats in a matter of weeks was an accomplishment in itself. “Not all virtual instruction is created equal, and for that matter, not all classroom experiences are, either,” said Anne Prisco, president of Felician University, a private Catholic, primarily commuter college, which has campuses in Lodi and Rutherford.

Noting that virtual classes are designed much differently from classroom courses, Prisco said, “We moved nimbly, within a week, to provide students with online classes and support services, including mental health and career development.” With virtual instruction a future possibility, she said, Felician students have been surveyed to see where improvements can be made.

The New Jersey Institute of Technology’s (NJIT) approach to improving virtual learning began seven years ago, when it pioneered an educational model called converged learning.

Asynchronous learning, in which a professor can post assignments, learning modules and assessments for students to complete within a designated timeframe, serves a purpose, but lacks the teacher-student dynamics of a traditional classroom.


Photo by Harry Cunningham on Unsplash

NJIT says its model of synchronous learning provides an “anywhere” classroom; through technology, professors and students can meet in real time for face-to-face discussions. “With a minimum of equipment (laptop, microphone, camera, tablet, and document reader), instructors were teaching and interacting with their students ten days after the official close of campus,” according to an NJIT brochure.

Still, said Mintz, to even more closely mimic the classroom experience with virtual instruction, professors will need to think creatively. “For some, online education has them saying, ‘This isn’t my wheelhouse. It’s not what I signed up for — it’s no longer a satisfying experience,’” he said. “Others are figuring out what they need to do to fulfill their obligation to students by providing learning experiences rather than solely classroom instruction.”

One example of what Mintz means comes from Stockton University. Its Lake Fred is not only an iconic presence on the Galloway campus — it is also a learning opportunity. Students in Professor Aaron Stoler’s ecology class made experimental islands in Lake Fred before classes went virtual to test the theory of island biogeography. With them no longer on campus, Stoler attached a motor to his canoe, set up a camera (“The trick is, with technology, not to fall in,” he noted) and donned a lifejacket for a virtual science lesson and then toured the lake as viewers requested updates on its turtles, frogs, otters and plants.

Students: Will they or won’t they come?

But the biggest unknown facing college administrators is whether students will even enroll and under what conditions.

Will they enroll at previous levels or decide to work? Will they want instead to take a gap year or, for incoming four-year college students, fulfill general education requirements at community colleges?

New Jersey colleges are trying to sweeten the decision-making process by extending decision deadlines, waiving certain fees and freezing tuition.

Still, undergraduate enrollment has been declining for the past several years, and even though historically there’s been an uptick during poor economies, it’s unclear if that trend will continue.

According to one national  survey, about one-fifth of high school seniors might change plans to attend college in the fall. Richard J. Helldobler, president of William Paterson University in Wayne, is especially concerned that first-generation college students, who account for a significant percentage of William Paterson’s student body, will become discouraged and choose not to attend. And yet, it’s exactly the time they should, he said, with higher education being the pathway to social mobility and increased earnings.

“These are students who all their lives have been told, ‘You can’t,’” he said. “We need to help them understand and do all we can to say, ‘Yes, you can.’”

Even with changes to family income, the prospect of continued virtual instruction or other factors, college students still have choices — although limited ones — about their fall plans, said Erin Avery, a certified independent educational consultant from Fair Haven, and author of “The College Labyrinth: A Mindful Admissions Approach.”

Expecting more movement than in the past

“There’s always been ‘summer melt’ — a time when some students change their college plans — but this year, we expect to see more movement than in the past. It could be a real feeding frenzy,” she says.

One reason for that beyond the pandemic: Facing U.S. Department of Justice antitrust accusations, the National Association for College Admission Counseling will for the first time allow its higher education members to recruit students committed to another college. Avery cautions, however, that students shouldn’t make deposits at two or three colleges as a way of hedging their bets. “You can only attend one of the schools, and it really leaves colleges holding the bag,” she said.

The best gap years are planned well in advance, she added, although there still might be a few opportunities. If it’s the prospect of virtual learning that’s driving that choice, perhaps reconsider. “Students with learning differences often have a great deal of difficulty with virtual learning, so that’s a valid reason for deferring enrollment,” she said. “However, for others, virtual learning can grow those students who rise to the challenge. The sooner young people learn to adjust to life’s disappointments and develop resiliency, the more successful they will be.”

Maybe it’s resiliency from having a senior year without its best perks — prom, commencement and yearbook signing — in the traditional fashion, but some of the college-bound are taking an “anything goes” approach to the fall.

Two seniors, James Greaney, who attends Westfield High School, and Lindsey Radeke, from St. John Vianney High School in Holmdel, are staying in New Jersey for their college education.

Greaney plans to study marketing at Rowan University, which was the only one of the 10 colleges he was accepted to that he was able to visit in person for a second time. “I liked Rowan a lot the first time I visited — it’s not too close to home, and I know people there — but the second visit made me feel connected in a way the virtual visits didn’t,” he said. The prospect of virtual instruction wouldn’t faze him, though. “It’s still a learning experience.”

For Radeke, the deciding factors for choosing Ramapo College were the course offerings in her intended major, psychology; cost; and proximity to home. In addition, she said, “A traditional college experience is important to me because I want to get myself out there and experience things that I have not tried yet and meet new people.” However, like other students, she would take online courses rather than defer her enrollment if that’s what is offered.

‘Worrisome’ but interesting time

Even with the landslide of pandemic-related challenges facing New Jersey schools, college presidents say, there have been bright spots and a realization that the decisions they’re making are shaping the future higher education landscape.

“We’re not about to return to normal — we’re shaping the new normal, one that at TCNJ will be true to our mission and values,” said Foster. “We’re in the midst of a worrisome time, but it’s interesting to see where higher education is headed and have a role in its transformation.”

Part One: How the Pandemic Has Transformed the College Experience and Could Transform It Even More


Header:  Photo by Changbok Ko on Unsplash

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City Hall of Jersey City

Referendum Making Jersey City Board of Education Appointed Body To Be Withdrawn

Amidst the Covid-19 panic, Mayor Steven Fulop and Jersey City Council announced that they will be withdrawing the referendum asking voters if the Jersey City Board of Education should become an appointed body rather than an elected one. A resolution to formally withdraw the referendum will be voted on by the Council at its next meeting on Wednesday, May 6. With nine members, the Board represents nearly 30,000 students in 42 public schools.

“We still have major concerns with the Board of Education’s decision to raise taxes on residents during the pandemic, but the reality is we don’t want to be more disruptive to the schools when  they return in September after being closed for months,” said Fulop. “We’ve been working closely with the superintendent to help get the schools back on track as swiftly as possible due to the unforeseen obstacles we’re facing amid the pandemic.”

The referendum, which was first approved on Jan. 8, received mixed reviews from educators, union representatives and parents, some of who referred to the idea of a board unilaterally appointed by the mayor as “sneaky” and “an opportunistic power grab.” Others felt that the decision had been made in good faith, spurred by serious management problems the Board had had for years, most recently the resignation of five members right before Jan. 8.

“There’s no arguing the schools needed help when we first introduced this,” said Council President Joyce Watterman,” Today, we’re in a much different climate, and we need to think about the best course of action in this new environment for our students, parents, teachers and residents.”

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Dickinson High School

Jersey City Kids Lament School Closures

Winnie the Pooh can’t go outside because of coronavirus,” five-year-old Mateo told his parents this week, five weeks into the struggle to adapt to learning at home during Covid-19 school closures.

Jersey City students have not been inside a school since March 16, when schools closed physically due to the spread of the virus. Parents suddenly doubled as teachers as learning through paper packets, Google Classroom, and Zoom commenced. Kids have been managing their own unique stresses with life slowed and stilled, conducted mostly within the walls of their homes, unable to play outside as parks citywide are now also closed.

Virtual Classroom

Photo by Jersey City Staff

Like Pooh, Mateo reports being sad that I have to stay inside.” And Mateo has lots of company. Learning at home is not as difficult as you would think it would be, but it’s way less fun,” says Ella Johnson López, in eighth grade. I’m missing the fun part of the year.” Eighth graders, like many high school seniors, are sad to skip the celebrations of their final year in their current school.

Teachers, know that you are missed. If you don’t understand something, it’s harder to figure out by yourself,” says sixth grader Mia Johnson López. Second grader J.B. Dickinson agrees. If there was worksheet, if it was wrong, she could just say it,” he explains. JB looks forward to seeing his teacher online every day: There’s lots of Zoom.”

All the children who shared their experiences miss their friends more than anything. I miss the environment, my friends, classmates, and human connection,” says Isabella Levin, a senior at McNair (and daughter of the editor of Jersey City Times). Socializing is the fun part, and that’s taken away,” says Mia.

Despite all these drawbacks, life for K-12 students under the school closures has had its upsides. Esha Shah, another 12th grader at McNair, has started cooking more, been making pasta from scratch, and even taken up embroidery. Five-year-old Mateo countslearning with Daddy” and recess with my scooter” as benefits to staying inside. Camila Suarez points out that she has become really good at typing,” and she is comforted knowing her family is all fine. Her brother, 11-year-old Mateo, has discovered what many adults who’ve worked remotely have known for a long time: the joy of working in one’s pajamas.

That Covid-19 is wreaking havoc on our city, killing many loved ones, is not lost on even younger children. Speaking for kids in the earliest grades, Mateo, 5, knows that is bad and people are dying”; and JB says that he would like adults to know “that kids are going through something — a catastrophe.” A bit older, Mateo Suarez feels a sense of dread that I can’t see my friends,” and his sister Camila is feeling scared that I might get it.” Even high school students, more used to working online, find that motivation is a challenge. It’s hard to focus on work,” says Levin.

Instruction and food services for children will continue through at least May 15. Packets of home learning materials” were sent home with K-12 students in Jersey City’s public schools before schools closed on March 16. Thereafter, schools pivoted to become food distribution centers for those city kids who receive free lunch and breakfast.

This week, students who need Chromebooks, laptops, or Wi-Fi hotspots will be able to pick them up from schools. And while all state testing has been cancelled, AP exams for high school juniors and seniors have not. They’ll be administered next month albeit online and with questions that are shorter than previously and with open-ended responses.

Eventually, at some point in the undetermined but hopefully not too-far-off future, 11-year-old Mateo would like to be able to tell others that it was a tough time, but we got through it together.”

For more on the impact of Covid-19 on Jersey City families, see Alexandra Antonucci’s article on the transition to online learning.


Header: Dickinson High School, Jersey City Times File photo

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With NJ Schools Shut for Another Month, Lessons Learned, Advice from Front Lines

The past month has revealed strengths of educators, students, and shortcomings that must be remedied starting today

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit

Full story link – HERE.

By John Mooney

Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement yesterday that New Jersey’s schools would remain closed and relying on remote instruction for at least another month was never really a matter of if, but of how long.

And the news that the closure would be extended until at least May 15 left open a glimmer of possibility that schools could come back for a month or two, maybe salvaging something symbolic for the year, including high school graduations.

But as 26 other states have taken steps to shut schools for the rest of the academic year, New Jersey’s more deliberate approach means another four weeks of struggling to keep their balance for the state’s public and private schools — all of which have already undergone seismic changes in the past month and now are in it for the longer haul.

Faced with that prospect, NJ Spotlight queried a few New Jersey education leaders, advocates and others to ask about lessons learned over the last month and on what lies ahead. A few issues dominated.

Technology divide

At a time when remote instruction relies on technology like never before, there was widespread acknowledgement among both those inside education and out that the digital divide of computer haves and have-nots is as steep as everyone feared.

The state a week ago said that just 70% of districts had 90% or more of students with the necessary technology for remote instruction, and at least 100,000 students still were without devices or internet connectivity, or both.

School leaders yesterday said the digital divide has long been realized but now it was hitting home.

“The inequity of our poorer communities to use digital resources for students and families to connect with schooling and even their families has been bared wide open,” said Richard Bozza, a former superintendent and now executive director of the state’s superintendents association.

Advocates were equally worried.

David Sciarra of the Education Law Center listed as his first two lessons: “1) How unprepared we find ourselves in providing students effective and equitable learning by remote, digital means; 2) the need to begin preparing right now for the thousands of students who will experience learning loss and need compensatory education to catch up when schools reopen.”

Shelley Skinner of the Better Education Institute said she was surprised how wide the gap was in many communities.

“Chromebooks aren’t even that expensive,” she said. “We just haven’t been able to turn the corner on online learning in this state.”

And the superintendent of one of the state’s largest districts agreed.

“Device and internet access must be available to every student in our state to be able to provide remote learning and interact with teachers, peers, guidance counselors, and administrators,” said Scott Rocco, superintendent of Hamilton schools.

“A device and internet for students should be a standard educational resource for today’s students, just as textbooks and notebooks were for those of us who went to school years ago.”

Educator — and family — resilience

At the same time, credit and praise is widespread for educators and others inside the schools for trying to make it work. Rocco, the Hamilton superintendent, said the cooperation inside his district has been palpable.

“Faculty, staff, administration, students, and parents are doing everything they can to make remote learning work as best as possible,” he said.

“I’ve seen wonderful team work, effort and collaboration. It’s not perfect, and there are issues from time to time but people are coming together in a tough situation. It is inspiring to see.”

The president of the state’s dominant teachers union cited the adaptability of her members.

“Almost overnight — and literally overnight in some cases — they transitioned to remote instruction as well as totally different ways of providing for other needs like meals,” said Marie Blistan, president of the New Jersey Education Association.

State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet also focused on praise. “We are creative, we are resilient, we are strong,” he emailed last night.

Several cited the weight this has put on families as well, many of them educators playing multiple roles. And students and families responded.

“Schools learned quickly it was so important to build a virtual learning climate, making connections with students in a variety of creative ways,” said Patricia Wright, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

When asked her list of lessons so far, Burlington City school principal Denise King included a lesson about creating a balance at home.

“The importance of creating a balance: work from home, family at home, instructional support at home, healthcare at home, household responsibilities, safety at home, unplug and ensure family time for fun, creativity and laughter at home,” she wrote.

We’re not done yet

Murphy’s ambiguous timeline speaks to the uncertainty of what lies ahead. He repeatedly has mentioned the pushback he has received from families about lost sports seasons and lost graduations.

“Whether it’s sports or seniors wanting to see their graduation ceremonies, I have nothing but complete sympathy,” Murphy said yesterday, himself the parent of a high school student.

“Please know we are not in any shape or form trying to be Dr. No here. Nothing would give me more joy than saying we’re ready to go … But we are just not there yet. If we can continue the course for another four weeks, we may have a different message at that point.”

Maybe not so coincidentally, the state’s interscholastic sports association in the middle of Murphy’s announcement yesterday put out a release that it could still pull off a spring season of high school athletics starting as late as May 25.

With the state’s current education commissioner Lamont Repollet sure to be part of that decision going forward, one of New Jersey’s former commissioners said it will clearly require some creativity on all parts to salvage something out of the year and stem the potential losses, even if it means improvised summer sessions.

“We need to think out of the box in setting an educational and community vision for getting students back into the classroom for at least a few weeks during June, July and August,” said David Hespe, who served as commissioner across three decades, most recently under former Gov. Chris Christie.

“To do otherwise would mean some students will be out of the classroom for six months by the time Labor Day arrives.”

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Saint Peter's University

How COVID-19 Has Changed the College Admissions’ Ritual in New Jersey

Campus walk-throughs have gone virtual, decision dates have been delayed for many, enrollment trends are uncertain, but counselors say the kids will be alright

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit

Full story link – HERE.

By Sheila Noonan

College applications and decisions have always had elements of uncertainty. But now, with COVID-19 and quarantines, the high school classes of 2020 and 2021 have perhaps more than their fair share of questions still to be answered: With the economic downturn, can they afford to attend their school of choice? Even if quarantines end before the fall semester, could the coronavirus reemerge widely enough to close college campuses again? How can students and parents get a “feel” for a college without stepping foot on campus?

Some questions are more easily addressed than others. Nonetheless, the school counselors who’ve followed these students’ progress through high school are generally optimistic about one thing: Even in this challenging and changing environment, the kids will be alright.

“College choice is very much a family discussion, and school counselors have been working alongside these families throughout the high school years so they can make the best decision,” said Fred Douglas, school counselor, Parsippany High School, president of the Morris County Professional Counselor Association and president-elect of the New Jersey School Counselor Association. For the most part, he said, seniors headed to college in the fall have completed the applications and made their choices.

Students being given more time to decide

For those who haven’t, several U.S. schools are giving them more time past the traditional May 1 decision date. At Rider University in Lawrence Township, for example, prospective undergraduates can request an extension of the deposit deadline to June 1. “With interruptions to many events and services in the region, it’s OK if you feel you need more time to make your final admission decision,” its website states.

Even students who’ve made a college decision might be inclined to change it. “Right now, kids who have applied to schools across the country are grappling with what the fall semester may look like, and I believe that will cause some students to defer admission for a year — which is something most colleges will consider — while taking courses at a community college or committing to a school closer to home,” said school counselor E. Lee Riley of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North.

Additionally, Riley said, “Accepted student days have moved to online, which obviously changes the experience, and that’s been tough. Colleges are trying their best to make the virtual experiences meaningful, but there is only so much they can do.” Even with the differences between an in-person and virtual experience, he added, New Jersey colleges are providing a tremendous amount of information to both students and high schools.

Uncertainty for the colleges too

If it’s any consolation for uncertain students and their families, said Douglas, higher education is feeling the pressure, too. “From the colleges’ side, they don’t know exactly what their future classes will look like.”

While the senior class completes the transition process, the Class of 2021 is gathering steam. With regard to standardized testing, they may be working under a truncated timeline. Some have taken the SAT or ACT once, but many students sit for those exams multiple times. This year’s May SAT exam was canceled, and the April ACT test was postponed to June, meaning more students will take the tests in the fall, just weeks before beginning college applications.

Meanwhile, the face-to-face conversations and programs school counselors have with juniors and their families are still occurring, as many business meetings are, by Zoom and FaceTime. “We know these kids are very active online and know how to use technology, so it’s been a relatively seamless transition, and in many cases, quite positive. We have outreach with students all the time, but in these difficult times, I’ve never been as proud to be a school counselor as I am today,” said Douglas. “My main message as juniors take the next steps in the college process is to be patient, be prepared and be flexible.”

“I’m an optimist, so I think that in most cases juniors and seniors will successfully navigate this process,” said Riley. “I reminded my students … not to let go of the excitement and sense of accomplishment that they should be feeling as they complete their high school careers.”

Colleges and universities are keeping an eye on fall enrollment while attempting to address current students’ concerns. For example, as of last week, deposits for next fall’s freshman spots at Seton Hall University were down about 10% from last year at the same time, while deposits from transfer students were up, said Mary Clare Cullum, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the school. At Stockton University, undergraduate enrollment was trending significantly ahead of last year but has slowed in the past few weeks, said Robert Heinrich, Chief Enrollment Management Officer.

Watching enrollment trends

Both admissions officers are optimistic that enrollment trends will soon change, but they understand the slowdown. “It might be taking students longer to make decisions,” said Heinrich. “We recognize at Stockton that college is a significant expense, and we try our best to work with them.” Some families might not be in the same financial situation today as when they filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) using 2018 information, he noted, and upon request, the university’s financial aid team will discuss with them additional aid students might be able to receive.

Cullum, too, has had many in-depth discussions with students and parents on such topics as deferred admission (an undergraduate’s spot in their major and scholarship can be held for a year) and the quality of Seton Hall’s online instruction. On the latter point, she said a taskforce of campus experts was convened to develop the highest level of distance learning possible.

Interactive technology tools are also used between college admissions officers and high school counselors to share information and answer questions. College fairs at high schools and other venues are also going virtual.

In the meantime, while there’s nothing like walking through the Seton Hall green or standing at the edge of Stockton’s Lake Fred, these schools, like other New Jersey colleges, are using all the technological resources possible to bring the campus experience to life for admitted and prospective students.

When it became clear quarantines could be in effect for a while, Cullum and her team decided to create a new video with the look and feel of a live campus tour. That, and other new resources featuring Seton Hall administration, residential life and more, are foundational to the university’s enhanced online profile. A recent virtual student-admitted-day drew about 1,200 attendees during the event and had 2,000 site visitors. “We’re working harder than ever before,” she said.


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Murphy Waives All State Testing for New Jersey’s Graduating Seniors

But there are few other certainties as of yet, including how to reach students who have no access to technology for remote learning and how long lockdown will last

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit

Full story link – HERE.

By John Mooney

New Jersey’s 2,500 public schools and 1.4 million students are in limbo when it comes to how this school year will proceed and how it will end. But yesterday, Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration answered at least a few of the questions.

In a sweeping executive order, Murphy announced in his daily briefing that he had extended the current closure indefinitely — hinting that a firmer decision is still at least a week away. But he also announced an end to limbo for roughly 13,000 high school seniors, waiving all state testing requirements for those hoping to graduate with a diploma this June.

Murphy had already suspended the testing for the spring, but his order said any final hurdles — including a last-resort portfolio appeal — would be removed and graduation assured as long as the students met local requirements.

“They will no longer need to submit an appeal in order to graduate,” Murphy said.

The decision won quick plaudits from advocates who had worried in the early days of the pandemic that these students would be unintentionally harmed.

“The reduced availability of alternatives and the difficulty of implementing the portfolio with schools closed made enforcing the testing requirement untenable,” said Stan Karp, director of secondary reform for the Education Law Center.

“The governor’s decision provides needed relief for 13,000 seniors who were on track to graduate in June and for their schools. It will allow them to concentrate on the many challenges they face in light of the pandemic.”

Nixes testing for teacher evaluation

Murphy’s orders also specifically eliminated the use of testing for evaluating teachers, although it was already minimal, and gave a few local districts flexibility in pushing back school board and budget votes from April to May 12.

Nonetheless, the governor and state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet at the daily briefing didn’t mince words that challenges and uncertainties remain, including around the large numbers of students without the technology for remote instruction.

By the state’s own survey, more than 100,000 students don’t have either the internet connectivity or the one-on-one devices needed for distance learning. Paper-and-pencil tools are still available, but officials conceded the more technology the better.

“Online learning is just one tool,” Repollet said. “Continuous instruction can come in many ways.”

The commissioner pushed to give an upbeat appraisal, saying educators statewide had made remarkable strides in a few weeks. “These extraordinary circumstances call on all of us … to reach for new heights of innovation, collaboration and mutual support,” he said.

“We have been at this 20 days,” the commissioner said.

How long in lockdown?

Still, the basic question remains about how long schools would be in lockdown and relying on remote instruction. Murphy has said that decision wouldn’t come before April 17, a month from his initial order, but he yesterday offered little encouragement that schools would be back to normal anytime soon.

When specifically asked whether families should plan for the late-spring graduation season, for example, the governor said he wouldn’t bet on it.

“I’m not trying to be flippant, but I wouldn’t put any nonrefundable checks down on the (graduation) celebrations right now,” Murphy said. “It’s hard to say otherwise. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear I am not.”


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Amid COVID-19 Crisis, NJ Seeks Pass on Student Test Requirement

Governor also says he is unsure how long schools will remain closed in favor of remote learning

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit

Full story link – HERE.

By John Mooney

Gov. Phil Murphy settled one question Tuesday for New Jersey’s 2,500 public schools and 1.4 million students in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — but left plenty unanswered.

A week into his full “stay at home” order for New Jersey and its schools, Murphy started his daily COVID-19 press briefing with an announcement that the state would seek a waiver from the federal government on required standardized testing for students this spring, a contentious issue in this state.

Approval is all but assured, as the federal Department of Education has said it would approve the testing waivers for the hardest-hit states. New Jersey has the second highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country.

“With students at home and not in their regular classrooms, it is simply not feasible for us to be able to move forward with testing in any meaningful way,” Murphy said in Newark.

“The number-one priority is for students to be able to work on the lessons before them and to use the time as best as possible to keep up with their current studies,” the governor continued. “Many parents have moved into a dual role as classroom educator, and it would not be fair for them to also pick up the role of test proctor as well.”

No word on length of closure

But at the same briefing, Murphy continued to hedge on how long schools would remain closed in favor of the remote learning now taking place, in a school year that now has just three months to go. He gave his familiar “until further notice.”

“That’s just not a decision we have made yet,” Murphy said to a question from NJ Spotlight. “I think folks should expect that schools will be closed for a meaningful period of time. That is hardly making news, I know, but when we have a more specific sense, I’ll give it to you.”

And even the long-expected cancellation of state testing raised some questions about what it would mean for students who are required under law to pass the tests for high school graduation come June.

A vast majority of the upcoming graduates are well-through the process at this point. Still, for the rest, Murphy said it would not change current graduation requirements that mandate passing either an 11th grade test or alternative measures, the latter of which take place in school settings. They include achieving certain thresholds on college-prep tests like the SAT or the ACT and a “portfolio appeal” process where a student’s classroom work is taken into consideration.

But when pressed on how that process would happen with schools shut down, Murphy said students wouldn’t be blocked from graduating due to either the changes or the new uncertainty about the end of the school year. Separate state guidance has laid out that the portfolio appeal process should continue.

“We are not going to prevent students from graduating high school due to the decisions we are making about standardized testing or how long schools will be open,” the governor said.

Once the waiver is approved by Washington, Murphy said he would issue an executive order for the one-year suspension and hinted it could involve changes to other education mandates as well. The department said it would also involve the suspension of standardized testing for students with limited English skills and other special needs. The order had yet to be released last night.

Welcome news in some quarters

Even with the lingering questions, Murphy’s announcement of the planned suspension of state testing was welcomed from some school groups, including the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s dominant teachers union that has long been a critic of the testing.

“NJEA supports the decision to eliminate standardized testing this year,“ texted Steve Baker, a spokesperson for the union. “Under these circumstances, there is no way to administer those tests and no justification for losing one minute of available instructional time. We are pleased that the [administration] is pursuing the waiver.”

In what has become an annual ritual that dominates the school day for weeks, the testing would have commenced in earnest in the next month, with exams administered to every student in grades 3-8 in language arts and math and then again in high schools in specific subject areas.

In place now for decades, the statewide exams are developed and administered through the state DOE, but as they are ordered through federal law, cancelling them requires a federal waiver.

But the testing here has been contentious to say the least, with New Jersey among the states that saw open protests several years ago and widespread “opt-outs” by students and their families.

Murphy ran for office on a platform that called for an immediate end to the PARCC testing the state had in place at the time. But that process turned out to be more complicated than maybe had been expected.

The state did technically end PARCC, as other states abandoned it as well. But the same online testing basically remains in place under a different name — Student Learning Assessments. And while the administration has said it plans to seek what it terms as a “next generation of testing,” that request for proposals has still not gone out as of several weeks ago.


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