As schools nationwide struggle to finalize reopening plans, some have abruptly changed course because of coronavirus outbreaks or pushback from the community. One school district in New Jersey voted this week to hold all classes remotely, despite Governor Phil Murphy insisting for months on some form of in-person classes.
In a major reversal, Murphy’s office said he will announce plans to facilitate remote learning as an option later on Wednesday, revealing how uncertain the coming school year will be.
“It became fruitless to continue to try to do what was impossible. So they’re going to spend the next five weeks making remote learning the best it possibly can be,” said Pat Politano, a spokesperson for New Jersey’s Elizabeth school district, whose board Monday moved to take classes entirely online.
Politano said more than 400 teachers have already opted out of in-person classes over health concerns, among them: first-grade teacher Marie Tichenor.
“I want everyone to feel safe. Myself, my students, my colleagues, my family,” Tichenor said.
Tichenor said she applied for a medical exemption because her husband is immunocompromised, but she’s also stressed about how distancing guidelines would hurt her ability to teach if she were in the classroom.
“What do I do if a child cries and needs their shoe tied? How do I respond and say, ‘I can’t help you, I can’t comfort you, because we need to be six feet apart,'” she said.
As schools nationwide figure out how best to re-open, some have already encountered speed bumps.
Schools across Elkhart County, Indiana are now authorized to start in person. They first announced they’d begin the school year digitally, which had prompted students and parents to protest outside the county health department in favor of reopening.
And days after a photo surfaced of a jam-packed hallway at North Paulding High School in Georgia, at least nine coronavirus cases were confirmed there, prompting a temporary switch to remote learning. The reception to that decision was not without controversy.
At a Paulding County School District meeting Tuesday, some cast doubt that the coronavirus would affect their kids; though studies indicate children can be infected. One teacher was not amused.
“I had students making fun of the fact that I choose to wear a mask. That’s unacceptable,” the teacher said.
Back in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Politano said the priority is giving students a quality experience at home.
“This is a working-class and low-income community, but their children are entitled to equitable education and we’re going to work like hell to see that they get that,” he said.
In addition to their educational needs, more than 75% of children in Elizabeth Public Schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. To serve that demand, the district has set up a grab-and-go program to continue providing meals to its students.