New Jersey school buildings will remain closed until at least May 15 due to the coronavirus, Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday, a move that keeps the state’s 1.4 million students learning from home for at least another month and leaves families waiting for a final decision on whether schools will reopen this academic year.
The prolonged closure, which began in mid-March, will result in at least four more weeks of parents acting as surrogate teachers, educators trying to reach students remotely, and students learning at home through paper packets and online activities. The academic and psychological toll on students is likely to be profound, especially for the thousands in Newark and other districts who still lack the technology needed for online learning.
The announcement is sure to frustrate some families and school employees who have sought clarity about whether in-person classes will resume this spring. Twenty-five states have already ordered or advised school buildings to remain closed for the rest of the academic year.
“There’s nobody who wants to open the schools more than I do,” Murphy said, adding that he hopes to reopen school buildings next month if the coronavirus can be contained.
“I know this is hard. It’s hard on all of us,” he said. “But if we all keep pulling and working together, I hope it will put me in a position in a month’s time to make a different announcement.”
New Jersey has suffered more coronavirus infections and deaths than any state except New York, leading Murphy to order a near-lockdown last month to curb the virus’s spread. As of Thursday, more than 75,000 residents have tested positive for the coronavirus and 3,518 have died.
This week, Murphy signed into law a bill allowing remote learning to count toward the required 180 school days during public health emergencies such as pandemics. The law also allows schools to offer virtual special education services while buildings are closed.
Murphy’s cautious approach mirrors that of Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who has refused to make a final decision about keeping schools closed until the end of the school year, even as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Saturday that the city’s schools will remain closed — creating confusion for the city’s parents and educators. Murphy has said he wants to coordinate any potential school reopenings with New York and other states in the region.
In the four weeks since Murphy shuttered school buildings statewide, Newark has raced to shift to remote learning. Yet steep challenges remain for the district’s roughly 36,000 students, more than 80% of whom qualify for subsidized lunches because their families have limited incomes.
The district has converted schools in each ward into food distribution sites, but many families are reluctant to venture out of their homes to pick up the daily grab-and-go meals. While the sites remain open this week during spring break, only about 1,000 meals were distributed on Monday, the mayor said.
Schools have loaned out more than 8,000 laptops to families and partnered with internet providers to provide free WiFi. Yet more than 2,000 students still lacked devices at the start of April, even as the district said all learning has moved online.
Schools have been taking attendance remotely, largely by tracking when students check in online. But officials said they cannot calculate district-wide attendance figures, leaving them in the dark about how many students are unable to keep up with their studies from home — a troubling development in a district that has long struggled with chronic absenteeism.
Besides the gaps in technology, many Newark students face dire situations at home that can interfere with their remote learning. Many families are coping with lost income and food shortages as they shelter in place, while some parents are essential employees who must continue reporting to work, leaving older children to look after their siblings. With more than 3,200 confirmed coronavirus infections in Newark and 192 deaths as of Wednesday, some students have watched family members fall ill or worse.
“The more cases that are counted, the more families that are impacted,” said Genique Flournoy-Hamilton, principal of University High School.
Teachers have been working long hours to support their students from afar. They are calling and texting families to check in and offer tech support, posting and grading online assignments, and in some cases using videoconferencing tools to hold office hours and give live lessons. Yet many older students say the online instruction doesn’t compare to the classroom experience, where they can ask questions in real time and work with their peers. And many parents of younger students are struggling to master the new technology and help their children complete daily assignments.
“When you have three different kids with assignments due each day, it’s not realistic,” said Shamonique Jones, whose three children attend Louise A. Spencer Elementary.
Certain student groups need extra support that is difficult to provide remotely. The state recently approved emergency rules allowing schools to provide certain special-education services, such as counseling and speech therapy, virtually or by phone. Yet many parents of students with disabilities remain worried their children will not get the help they need and fall behind.
High schoolers are also in a precarious situation: they may miss out on a round of college entrance exams and will have to complete many high-stakes steps in the college admissions process — submitting applications, deciding where to enroll, applying for financial aid — with only virtual help from their counselors. Seniors are mourning the likely loss of prom and graduation ceremonies this spring, while waiting to learn if and when those long-awaited milestones will be rescheduled.
Last week, Murphy said he does not expect those events to happen this spring.
“I’m not trying to be flippant, but I wouldn’t put any non-refundable checks down on your celebrations right now,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that I am not.”
But previous studies show that missing out on class time — whether due to absences, summer break, or lengthy school closures — sets back students academically. And research on the Great Recession found that student learning suffered as household incomes and school funding tanked; the pandemic is likely to inflict similar damage, both economically and educationally.
Across the country, education leaders are already proposing drastic measures to offset the lost class time, including extending the academic year, expanding summer school, or paring down next school year’s curriculum to just the basics.
It remains to be seen whether New Jersey or individual districts such as Newark will take such steps. For now, teachers such as LaToya Waddell at University High School are still wrapping their minds around the perhaps unprecedented disruption to their students’ learning — and what it will mean for them in the years to come.
“When I think about the future, I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” she said. “I’m just taking deep breaths and looking forward to the day when we’ll be able to really interact again.”