As schools go virtual, advocates worry vulnerable will be left behind 

By KARMA ALLEN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Educator. Advocate. Mom.

Those are words that come to mind when one speaks with Michelle Parelleo, a New Jersey mom-turned-special needs advocate, who sprang into action earlier this year when COVID-19 shuttered schools across the country, forcing her to home school her 12-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy.

Parelleo is one of the many parents across the country forced to fill the gaps in learning as many schools around the country gear up to go virtual for at least another semester.

Wearing all of those hats is difficult for even the most capable parent, but the situation in the state and elsewhere, is now being complicated by considerable uncertainty surrounding the upcoming school year.

New Jersey, like other states, recently announced a plan that lets school districts decide for themselves how they want to conduct the school year — allowing in-person learning, fully remote learning or a blend of the two.

The plan, announced last week by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, also puts the onus on districts to come up with plans to bring students and staff back to schools safely.

In the wake of the announcement, many school districts that had initially called for students and teachers to return to physical classrooms have been holding emergency meetings to approve revised plans, according to local news outlet NJ.com. At least 139 school districts had inquired with the Department of Education about making the switch as of Tuesday, the outlet reported, citing officials.

And some districts — including densely populated public school districts in New Brunswick and Camden — have opted to stay remote until early 2021.

The move has set up a showdown with educators, thousands of whom are now demanding that classes be virtual for the rest of the year due to safety concerns.

And critics say the plan, while allowing for flexibility, could exacerbate disparities between the haves and have nots and make the situation tougher for those with special needs, who rely on in-person services in many cases.

“A lot of the issues that have happened within virtual learning since the shutdown is a lot of the children are not receiving all the services that they’re entitled to, and the things that are outlined in their individual education plans,” Parelleo, whose children attend school virtually in Union, County, New Jersey, told ABC News. “So if you have a child, like my child who requires physical and occupational therapy, those are done remotely.”

Not a one-size-fits-all plan

Murphy defended his plan in an op-ed earlier this week amid the ongoing backlash, which provides the option to reopen schools but maintains closure of gyms and indoor dining. Schools must meet safety requirements, including having social distancing measures in place in classrooms and solving any issues with ventilation systems, according to the governor’s plan.

“We have worked alongside our districts to ensure they have the flexibility to meet their unique needs. There is no one-size-fits-all plan for this very difficult situation,” Murphy wrote. “The simple fact that New Jersey is home to nearly 600 public school districts — more districts than we have municipalities — plus charter and Renaissance schools, non-public and parochial schools, and other specialized places of learning proves this point.”

He said the Department of Education had put forward “strong guidelines” to allow the option for in-person instruction, but he noted that for some districts, “there are legitimate and documentable reasons why some of these core health and safety standards cannot be met on Day One.”

Schools are also required to accommodate any parent who opts to keep their children home, according to the plan.

“New Jersey’s education system has long been rooted in local control and decision-making, based on local input. I would not ask the students and parents in one community to decide what’s best for the schools next door — or vice versa,” he said. “And so for the past six weeks, we have relied upon the work of local educational communities to determine the best way for their schools to reopen.”

Concerns about structural inequalities

Many educators acknowledged the state’s plan as a good-faith effort to give individual districts the flexibility to do what is best for their communities, but some say it could create grave inequalities that could force some kids to be left behind.

For example, some child safety advocates have complained about the lack of a statewide plan to mandate equal levels of personal protection equipment across all districts. Schools can implement some requirements, including one that mandates 6 feet of distance, in various ways depending on their resource levels.

“You can meet the 6 feet guidance in a lot of different ways. You can either have the 6 feet of distance say on a school bus, or if you couldn’t have the 6 feet you would put plexiglass barriers, but if you couldn’t put the plexiglass barriers, then you would have everybody wear masks on the bus. And that just is different degrees of health safety,” Patricia Wright, of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said. “So we were looking for more specific guidelines where we can be sure that we’re not creating an inequity in health safety for students across the state.”

“We also felt that there was also a need to ensure that schools had the funding for staffing, proper facilities and personnel protection equipment needed to adhere to these guidelines safely,” she added.

The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, which has nearly 7,000 members, composed of principals, supervisors, directors and other school district leaders, penned an open letter along with the New Jersey Association of School Administrators and the New Jersey Education Association last week, urging Murphy to go virtual.

“We’re very concerned about just being able to fulfill the obligations of in-person learning,” Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, told ABC News. “Number one, we have so many staff at all levels indicating that they will not be returning to school [because] they or their family members might be compromised or they’re having childcare issues because of the pandemic.”

“And that’s clearly going to create an unhealthy and unsafe situation if we cannot cover classes, even in a hybrid model,” he added.

‘Inappropriate’ to let superintendents make the call

Like many states, New Jersey’s policy essentially leaves it up to local communities to determine if they can safely reopen school buildings, but Bozza said it’s “absolutely inappropriate” to let superintendents make that call.

“I think it’s absolutely inappropriate to say to a school superintendent that you have to make a decision about health and safety on a medical matter when our training is in education,” Bozza said. “That’s why we were all asking for clearer guidance when it comes to deciding which schools should stay closed, which should open and should it change by community or region.”

“We’re fine in determining what to do in any situation with regard to education — whether it be remote, in-person or hybrid — but I think any health standard shouldn’t be community by community, they should be statewide,” he added.

Bozza said his organization, and many others, have requested the state develop some sort of standard for how schools should operate — one that could be applied to every school district in the state.

“Think about how hard it would if you’re running a high school that’s set to reopen its doors in less than a month,” he said. “First, you have to ask your parents what students are coming in, then you’d have to ask your staff who’s coming, and are your bus drivers, custodians, nurses, paraprofessionals and cafeteria workers going to be available. It’s an almost impossible task.”

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