Teachers, school officials plead for solutions for schools during COVID

‘We are well beyond our tipping point,’ a school nurse said

By: - January 7, 2022 6:25 am

The Senate Education Committee meeting by Zoom on Jan. 6, 2022. (Courtesy of New Jersey Legislature)

Teachers, school nurses, principals, and their advocates vented for nearly two hours to the Senate Education Committee Thursday, saying they are stretched beyond their limit because of COVID-19.

Teachers are taking on the responsibilities of cafeteria workers and custodians. Schools can’t retain educators. And everyone is growing more worried about remote schooling’s impact on learning loss.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chair of the education committee, said it is time for the state to start looking for solutions — not just for now, but for the next five to 10 years, to avoid a problem like this again.

“There is no plan currently to deal with the educational pandemic that has been looming and is coming to a crash here in New Jersey,” said Ruiz (D-Essex), who will become the senate majority leader when the new legislative session begins Jan. 11. “We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here.”

The Department of Education did not appear before the committee, although Ruiz said she invited the department. A spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Ruiz stressed the learning loss seen in the last two years hurts students of color and economically disadvantaged children most, as well as younger children who are still learning to read, a skill Ruiz noted affects the trajectory of their academic success.

Patricia Morgan, executive director of student advocacy nonprofit JerseyCan, described a report conducted by the organization that highlighted the detrimental effect this is having on students.

The report says if assessments had been done last spring, one in three students would be on grade level in English or language arts, and just one in four would be on grade level in math.

On Wednesday, the Department of Education released the results from the state’s “Start Strong” exams, diagnostic tests taken in September and October by students in grades 4 through 10 to show teachers what help their students may need.

The results were “largely consistent with our findings from last year,” Morgan said. Half of students from grades 4 through 8 will need some or strong support in English and roughly 75% of students in those grades will need support in math.

“New Jersey is not alone with this problem, and it’s important to note that students are not to blame for these learning losses. We know schools, teachers, parents are all working together to help our students through this crisis,” she said.

She urged the senators to form a statewide plan, create a centralized place for districts to support each other and share resources, and continue using tools such as the Start Strong exams to guide the next steps. Morgan also commended the Legislature and state for conducting these exams and studies.

Sean Spiller, president of the New Jersey Education Association, which represents 200,000 teachers, underscored the hidden ramifications of remote learning, particularly the social and emotional impact on students.

Students are meeting their classmates over Zoom for the first time, making it harder to interact and foster strong relationships, he said. And students who receive extra support through schools — like free or reduced lunches or occupational behavior therapy — are suffering, he said.

“I see the toll the pandemic has taken on them,” teacher Kevin Parker told the committee. “They’re distracted and they struggle to maintain focus. Class discussions are not as rich and engaging as they once were because the students are alien to face-to-face interaction. Their fears and anxieties for the loved ones in the state of the world surface in unlikely and unpredictable ways.”

Some of these issues existed pre-pandemic, but the pandemic has exacerbated the responsibilities put on teachers, said Karen Bingert of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisor Association. Now, teachers must educate while also making sure their kids are all focused and healthy, taking on the responsibilities of other teachers, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers.

Robin Cagan, of the New Jersey School Nurse Association, called on the state to fill a state school nurse consultant position at the DOE, which would also help centralize information.

A school nurse Cagan works with said she feels like she’s “hanging onto a lifeboat with one hand, while waves continue to pummel at the boat and there is no land in sight. And in my attempt to hang on, I know that I’m going to miss something important for a student. That, for school nurses, is a terrifying thought. We are well beyond our tipping point.”

More than 100 schools have changed their schedules this week, either due to staffing issues or the rise in coronavirus cases, according to NJ.com. 

Some advocates highlighted bills that could alleviate some of the stresses teachers and school officials face. Measures that would remove the in-state residency requirement for teachers (S4203) and allow retired teachers to return to the classroom during the pandemic (A5576) would expand the pool of eligible applicants for open positions. And a bill (A5925) requiring an annual report of the teacher workforce would help structure a long-term plan, they said.  All three bills are on Monday’s Assembly voting list.

Other teachers and school officials talked about the confusion surrounding how federal funding can be used, and the ever-changing rules and objectives of different grants.

Susan Young, of the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials, said the paperwork involved to apply for the grants — necessary to cover items such as PPE and laptops and to implement after-school programs to combat learning loss — are “extremely complicated and fraught with impediments.” At times, guidance would be issued and then retracted while schools were in the middle of applying, she said.

She urged the committee to lift New Jersey’s limit for grant expenditures from the current $44,000 to the federal limit of $250,000.

“During that initial pandemic year, at any one point in time, districts could not anticipate future funding sources. We have the benefit of hindsight right now,” Young said.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.