Experts at hearing: NJ education during COVID pandemic 'heartbreaking'. DOE officials didn't show
Here's an update for COVID-19 numbers in New Jersey schools. NorthJersey.com
The state Department of Education was noticeably missing from Thursday's Senate Education Committee's hearing on the pandemic's impact on education even as schools reel from staffing shortages and closures due to a surge in COVID-19 infections.
Representatives from the department, Gov. Phil Murphy's executive arm that oversees K-12 schools, were absent "despite being invited to testify," said a visibly disappointed Democrat Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chair of the Senate Education Committee.
"If I sound angry, I am," said Ruiz, in her opening remarks as she vowed to continue to work to change education, whether the Department of Education "acts or not."
The Department of Education did not respond to requests for information on why a representative did not attend the two-hour hearing attended by the state's two largest teachers unions, education policy watchdog JerseyCAN, senators and representatives of state associations of school nurses, business officials and principals and supervisors.
Disappointment and outrage over the state’s handling of the pandemic was amply evident as representatives poured their hearts out to the listening senators. In response, Ruiz called on the Department of Education to create a plan to address how to move forward.
Speakers discussed increasing staff shortages, frustration over difficulties faced by districts in executing their plans for spending emergency federal funds, complaints about lack of collaboration between the state and various groups working in the education field, and concerns for teacher safety and burnout.
The harshest words came from the New Jersey State School Nurses Association’s Robin Cogan, who criticized the Department of Education’s “abject lack of intervention” in health matters, even though health office volumes have never been higher. Confusion from changing CDC guidelines through December and into January and a “stunning lack of coordination” from local health departments plagued the nurses, who serve as health officers for their schools.
Cogan also found fault with the Department of Education for not filling the position of a state school nurse consultant, which she said was created early in the pandemic and authorized by Murphy. “We need authority and decision-making in the role of the school nurse consultant,” she said.
Ruiz also discussed the results of statewide testing that show students lagging in learning and achievement during the 2020-2021 academic year when schools went remote or operated offering a combination of in-person and virtual instruction.
Results from “Start Strong” testing administered by the state in October 2021 show learning was unfinished during the pandemic in math, English and science among many groups of children, and greater for elementary students and for historically underserved student populations. “The numbers are heartbreaking,” said Ruiz, referring to a presentation made by the Department of Education earlier this week, which sources confirmed, was attended by its acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan.
Start Strong tests, designed to assess the impact of learning in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, replaced the New Jersey Learning Standards Assessment usually conducted every academic year.
Policy and education watchdog Patricia Morgan said the state needed a plan to catch students up.
Shortages exist among nurses, substitute teachers, bus drivers and teachers in subjects that are not usually hard to find, including health and physical education, during the pandemic.
Alarming shortages in the pipeline of young people deciding to become teachers need to be addressed, said Karen Bingert, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association. She said 42% of principals surveyed by the organization said they were considering leaving their positions within the next three years. She warned of a vacuum in New Jersey’s teaching and administrative staff if this happens.
Raising salaries for teachers and nurses, and bills that are being considered by lawmakers to remove barriers to certifying teachers, were discussed as speakers continued to talk about increasing staff shortages that could cause near-permanent damage to New Jersey’s school system, considered to be among the nation’s best.
“Our education system is in crisis, if we are serious about addressing the learning loss. which was compounded over the last two years, and closing the achievement gap once and for all, we need a targeted, holistic plan” Ruiz told NorthJersey.com and The Record after the hearing, when asked if she thought the state's Department of Education -- and the governor's office responsible for running it -- have been inefficient.
"The administration's execution of funds was fraught with impediment," said Susan Young, speaking on behalf of the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials.
The association's members work in a range of services for school districts from accounting and budgeting to food service management, according to its website. Young said districts had to amend and reshuffle anticipated and actual expenditures, mostly within the span of one year, when both federal and FEMA funds were awarded to them. She said that grants from16 different funds, many with their own rules, were offered to districts between May 2020 and 2021. This occurred while school administrators responsible for financial processes were pivoting to free food programming during the pandemic when the federal government made meals free of cost to all students.
Ruiz is stepping down as Education Committee chair to take on the Senate Majority Leader spot on Jan. 10.
Allen-McMillan's absence at the meeting spoke volumes considering she was invited to attend by the Democrat-controlled Legislature – Murphy’s party.
Allen-McMillan has not been given a confirmation hearing by the Senate.
Her nomination to the position expires at the end of the current legislative session, on Jan. 10, indicating that she is unlikely to be confirmed. Sources said Allen-McMillan or a state Department of Education representative’s absence was likely because they did not have answers to what was bound to be a grueling hearing.
Mary Ann Koruth covers education for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about New Jersey's schools and how it affects your children, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.