WASHINGTON TWP, NJ (Warren County)– The Warren Hills Regional School District will begin the school year on Sept. 8 with fully remote classes amid a sudden teacher shortage, according to superintendent Earl C. Clymer, III.
In a letter to parents on Monday, Clymer wrote that so far, 31 faculty and staff, representing 18% of the district’s workforce, have submitted requests either to work remotely or to take a leave of absence. The district is obligated to honor their requests according to recent state and federal COVID-19 response laws which expand workers’ flexibility to take time off.
“Therefore,” Clymer wrote.”we are unable to provide coverage for all of our students and their courses and have no choice but to begin our school year in our Remote Learning Model.”
Clymer wrote that the district continues to receive such requests for leave. 100 members of the local education association signed on to a letter requesting the superintendent and board of education to approve a remote-learning reopening.
The district’s goal is to transition to a hybrid in-person instruction model by Sept. 17, but staffing challenges could persist for longer.
“The administrative team believes that the best way for our students to learn and the best way to ensure a positive educational experience is by the students being in the classroom,” Clymer told RNJ. “And we’re going to hold firm with that date.”
However, the federal Family First Coronavirus Response Act entitles faculty and staff facing child care issues the right to request a 12 week leave. Similarly, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy expanded the New Jersey Family Leave Act in April to provide 12 weeks of leave for parents who need to care for a child whose school or place of care closed due to the pandemic.
“That expansion really hurt a lot of school districts across the state,” Clymer told RNJ.
Filling those positions in the short-term presents another challenge, according to the superintendent.
He wrote that WHRSD is advertising open positions in the print media, on their website and through social media to secure certificated teaching candidates to address gaps in staffing.
“…which is becoming more and more difficult as a number of districts within our region have also indicated that they would begin a remote environment,” Clymer told RNJ. “So you have a lot of people pulling from one pool of candidates.”
Warren County Technical School and the Phillipsburg school district are planning on starting the year with remote learning. In Sussex County; Newton, Sparta, and Montague school districts have also announced plans to start classes remotely. Statewide, 242 public and private districts plan to start the year remotely, according to the New Jersey Department of Education.
Clymer said that their Remote Learning Model is one of three plans the district’s Reopening Committee developed over the summer and is already approved by the state education department. Every student has a district-issued laptop and Clymer said the district has worked with families to address internet connectivity issues. Distribution of free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch for students who qualify will continue in the same fashion throughout the virtual learning period.
“I share in your frustration and disappointment in not being able to provide the in-person experience,” Clymer wrote. “We will work tirelessly to resolve the issue created by the teacher shortage.”