NEW JERSEY – Bipartisan legislation sponsored by Senator Gerry Cardinale (R-39), Senator Jim Beach (D-6) and Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean (R-21) that explicitly authorizes school districts to continue educating students remotely in emergency situations that require school facilities to be closed for more than three days has been signed into law.
“In a time of extended crisis, such as the current pandemic, it’s important that school districts have the flexibility to continue educating students when classrooms cannot be used,” said Senator Cardinale. “This new law makes clear that school districts, students, and taxpayers will not be punished with a loss of State school aid for emergent situations like COVID-19 when remote instruction must be used in place of classroom education.”
School districts must provide public school facilities for at least 180 days during the preceding school year from July 1 to June 30 to be eligible for state school aid.
While state law previously allowed the Commissioner of Education to “remit the penalty” of withholding state aid for failing to meet the 180-day requirement “for good cause shown,” the State, prior to the current crisis, had strictly held that schools must provide in-school education for a school day to count, even when online learning tools are available.
After Senator Kean sent a letter to New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet on February 28 requesting guidance on the administration’s contingency plans in anticipation of extended school closures due to the coronavirus, the NJDOE issued such guidance to school districts on March 5th allowing remote education days to count towards the 180-day requirement.
Less than two weeks later, Governor Murphy signed executive order. 104 closing all schools in New Jersey for an indefinite period of time due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
“As we navigate the current public health crisis, and enact provisions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, it is important we use this experience to improve upon our state’s emergency protocols so we are better prepared going forward,” Beach said. “This law will ensure that if there is a need for extended school closures in the future, schools can confidently transition to remote learning, knowing it will count towards their 180-day requirement.”
The new law allows a school district, renaissance school project, charter school, county vocational school district, county special services school district, or an approved private school for students with disabilities (APSSD) to meet the 180-day requirement in a year with an excessive number of unexpected school closures due to a declared state of emergency, declared public health emergency, or a directive by the appropriate health agency or officer to institute a public health-related closure through the use of virtual or remote instruction.
In the event a district is required to close its schools for more than three days, the law requires the Commissioner of Education to apply one or more days of virtual or remote instruction to the 180-day requirement if the program of instruction meets such criteria as may be established by the Commissioner. School districts would be required to submit those programs to the NJDOE within 30 days of the bill’s enactment, and annually thereafter.
The law also provides that a day of virtual or remote instruction will be considered the equivalent of a full day of school attendance for the purposes of meeting State and local graduation requirements and the awarding of course credit.
Additionally, the law requires the Commissioner to provide guidance to districts on: providing instruction to students who may not have access to a computer or to sufficient broadband, or to any technology required for virtual or remote instruction; the required length of a virtual or remote instruction day; the impact of virtual or remote instruction on the school lunch and school breakfast programs; and the impact of virtual or remote instruction on the schedule for administering State assessments.
“Our schools, teachers, and families have demonstrated that it’s possible to develop and implement remote education plans that allow our students to continue learning during a crisis such as the current pandemic,” Kean said. “This law builds upon what we have learned during the current school closures and ensures that districts have clarity on the procedures for developing and implementing robust remote learning plans for future school years. We look forward to our students returning to their classrooms when the current crisis passes, but we must prepare today for future emergencies.”