New Jersey lawmakers eye rules for remote instruction

Virtual teachers needed amid teacher shortage, administrators say

By: - February 5, 2024 5:18 pm

Virtual instructors are becoming more common amid New Jersey's longstanding teacher shortages, and lawmakers want to set some rules. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

New Jersey legislators took the first steps toward regulating a post-pandemic boom in remote schooling that teachers’ unions and some lawmakers fear could erode learning standards as the state seeks to fill achievement gaps left by COVID-19-related school closures.

But school principals and administrators praised the practice during a discussion-only joint session of the Senate and Assembly education committees, where school officials said virtual lessons are a sorely needed tool to address a long-standing shortage of teachers.

“A year ago, at the governor’s task force, they said, ‘If we fail to do something, we’re going to be sitting here in dire straits,’ and that’s where we are,” said David Aderhold, superintendent of the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District. “The issue is we don’t have New Jersey certified educators.”

Aderhold and others said remote schooling firms that have grown in popularity following the pandemic, while not ideal, could help temporarily fill teacher vacancies for positions when schools find no suitable applicants — or for which they receive no applications at all. Other districts use remote courses to offer classes they can’t in person, like less-popular foreign languages courses and certain advanced placement courses, they said.

Remote instructors appear in their classrooms via live stream or through a prerecorded video, and another school official is present in the classroom, Aderhold said.

Questions remain over such instructors’ qualifications. Theresa Fuller, president of the North Plainfield Education Association, charged instructors from remote education firm Elevate K-12 who teach in her district never cleared the numerous bars faced by traditional educators.

With some exceptions, prospective educators in New Jersey must have a college degree, complete a teacher preparation course, pass two separate state-specific exams, and meet a student-teaching requirement to receive their certificate.

Those requirements join others — like criminal background checks, residency requirements, and school board votes — that Fuller said virtual teachers are not subjected to.

“While me and my colleagues have duly met these requirements, these requirements have not been met by the Elevate instructors in the classrooms down the hall from me, nor have these requirements been met in other classrooms across the state where these for-profit companies are taking advantage of the post-COVID educator shortage to funnel local tax dollars away from our state,” Fuller said.

Lauren Turner, a spokesperson for Elevate K-12, said the firm’s instructors were certified to teach in New Jersey, many through the state’s certification reciprocity system.

Evan Erdberg, CEO and founder of Texas-based remote teaching firm Proximity Learning, said instructors his company provided to more than 40 New Jersey school districts were certified through reciprocity with another state.

New Jersey does not automatically reciprocate teaching certificates granted in other states, though it does offer reciprocal certification for educators who have completed certain preparation programs and passed teaching exams administered by New Jersey or another state.

Out-of-state educators can also receive reciprocity if they hold a non-provisional teaching certificate issued in another state and have taught for at least two years.

“We are not here to replace teachers,” Erdberg said. “We’re here to ensure students get access to a teacher while the district continues to search for and hire a teacher. The best thing for students is to have a certified teacher in front of them, whether it’s virtual or in person, versus having just a sub or an aide who does not have content knowledge to teach them.”

New Jersey lawmakers, ever wary of losing the national regard earned by New Jersey public schools, appeared concerned at the prospect of out-of-state certificates becoming more and more common among New Jersey’s educators.

“That was probably the most alarming thing I’ve heard in the last five hours, that we have folks in New Jersey who are not certified currently to be teaching who are teaching in New Jersey,” said Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), the senate education chairman. “I do think there’s a big difference between a certified teacher in Mississippi versus New Jersey.”

Despite its longevity, the full scale of New Jersey’s teacher shortage remains unknown. It’s unclear whether the Department of Education ever completed a statutorily required annual report on teacher retention that was first due in mid-2022.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.