With less than three weeks to go before the start of a new school year, many questions remain about how our kids will receive their education.

The New Jersey Education Association has been lobbying hard for an all-remote start to the year, and many districts have decided that is how classes will begin. The teachers’ union has issued a series of guidelines it believes will support the basic well-being of students and staff. The list includes enhanced cleaning, mask-wearing and social distancing. Some local unions have taken that further and demanded air-sanitization systems and additional staff to constantly wipe down surfaces.

Gov. Phil Murphy continues to insist districts have a plan to resume in-class learning at some point in the year. Some districts have opted to begin that phase of the school year earlier than others. Freehold, for example, will return kids to classrooms on a hybrid schedule two weeks after the start of school. On average, districts that are opting for a virtual start will do so through the first marking period.

To date, more than 140 school districts have formally requested to start the year with distance learning. The New Jersey Department of Education expects many more will do so as it issues new guidance in the coming days. You can find an updated list of what school districts have filed formal plans for reopening here.

As more districts opt to keep student home for distance learning, there are growing concerns over the physical and mental well-being of our kids.

The student representative to the state Board of Education, Sabrina Capoli, says a survey she conducted found 79% of students reacted negatively to their on-line learning experience. She warned the board this week that the mental stresses of missing out on social interactions, proms, musicals, sports and graduations are real. The New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies warned the added stress could push more kids toward suicide.

While the impact to older students is significant for the aforementioned reasons, it may be the youngest students who could suffer the biggest long-term deficits.  The New Jersey Association for the Education of Young Children makes the point that the early years of grade school is where kids adopt critical life skills. These include organization, good decision making and emotional control.

There is also the very real economic impact to virtual learning. Many parents say they can’t afford to take time off from work to stay home with the kids while they distance learn. In districts like Lakewood, where many of the parents work in service jobs, few accommodations are made if they don’t go to work. No work, no pay. That’s the main reason the district has decided to resume a full in-class schedule in September. Murphy has promised help to working parents, but has yet to say what form that help will take.

The medical community is also divided on the return to school. Dr. Margaret Fisher is the medical director for the Unterberg Children’s Hospital and a world-renowned pediatric infectious disease specialist. She agrees with the American Academy of Pediatrics' “safety first” approach to returning to classrooms. However, she urges schools to move quickly to open classrooms. This is especially important, she says, for special needs students. “Many children receive services at school they can’t get at home such as speech therapy, sometimes physical therapy and occupational therapy,” she says.

For our children, schools, teachers and support staff, the stakes have never been higher. A digital divide remains with many not having access to adequate technology to successfully learn from home. New Jersey must be wary of a one-sized-fits-all approach. While it’s true many kids will struggle with distance learning, others will thrive. The key is parents, teachers, and administrators working in closely together to monitor their kids, and being prepared to offer support and when and where it is needed.

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New Jersey Returns to School Virtually

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