New Jersey’s plan for reopening the state’s public schools, “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education” (Road Back), presents a detailed set of “minimum standards” and “considerations” from the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) for districts to use as guidance as they plan for the fall.
In the Road Back, the NJDOE directs districts to “address students’ and educators’ basic physical safety needs” as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and “strive for social distancing within the classroom and school buses.” For social distancing, the NJDOE recommends classrooms be reconfigured at 113 square feet per occupant, allowing for a six-foot space in all directions. Students are not “required” to wear face coverings in a classroom conforming to this standard, but “when social distancing cannot be maintained” students must wear face masks. Also, districts “must ensure indoor facilities have adequate ventilation.”
In issuing these directives, the Road Back completely disregards the reality of the conditions in many school buildings. It also ignores the State’s own recent assessments by the NJDOE and the NJ Schools Development Authority (SDA) documenting severe overcrowding and unsafe conditions in buildings in the state’s high poverty, racially segregated urban districts (SDA districts).
Socially Distant Classrooms
A core recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control for reducing the spread of the coronavirus is social distancing. Consistent with federal guidelines, the Road Back recommends a six-foot distance between occupants in any room “to the maximum extent practicable.”
What does that mean in practice? According to NJDOE school facilities standards, an 800-square-foot classroom can accommodate between 21 and 24 students depending on grade level. Under the Road Back’s 113-square-foot per student standard for social distancing, that same 800-square-foot classroom must be reduced to 7-8 students, or to one-third of the total.
Reducing class size by 14-16 students to achieve social distancing will be problematic in buildings with reasonable class sizes pre-COVID-19. Yet, the Road Back fails to acknowledge that meeting this standard in already overcrowded school buildings may be insurmountable. If an 800-square-foot classroom typically holds 30-35 students or more, the district will need to reduce class size by over 20 students to meet the social distancing standard.
This is not a problem confined to a few school buildings. The NJDOE’s own analysis shows that classroom overcrowding is a systemic deficit in many SDA district school buildings. In a January 2019 facilities needs assessment, the NJDOE analyzed critical space deficiencies in relation to two factors: 1) overall building capacity; and 2) compliance with the NJDOE Facilities Efficiency Standards (FES), or the instructional and administrative spaces educationally necessary to support student achievement of New Jersey’s curriculum standards.
The NJDOE needs assessment found that 15 SDA districts lacked adequate space in their existing buildings to meet FES requirements pre-pandemic. The grade groups and districts most impacted by space deficiencies, listed in the table below, serve nearly 100,000 mostly low-income students and students of color.
The Road Back makes clear that if classrooms cannot be reconfigured to meet the 113-square-foot standard for social distancing, students are required to wear masks at all times. In districts with overcrowded classrooms, this requirement puts school leaders in the untenable position of deciding whether to reopen under the social distancing standard without masks or increase class size by some number over 7-8 students with a mandate to wear masks. The latter option may very well pose an elevated health risk given the impracticality of expecting students, especially in the early grades or with sensory or cognitive disabilities, to wear masks throughout the entire school day.
Health and Safety
To safely reopen, the Road Back requires schools to “ensure that their indoor facilities have adequate ventilation, including operational heating, and ventilation systems where appropriate.” The NJDOE includes information from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, which emphasizes the importance of this requirement, noting that “key elements of a strategy to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus are to perform needed heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system maintenance, including filter changes, and to run HVAC equipment, prior to re-occupancy.”
It will no doubt be a logistical and fiscal challenge for many districts to perform the continuous maintenance required to ensure ventilation and heating and cooling systems are working properly. The Road Back, however, ignores the striking data from the SDA that the inventory of school buildings in SDA districts includes over seven million square feet of existing building stock that is over 91 years old and most likely in need of upgrades and repair.
Further, the NJDOE’s own data document the serious ventilation issues in many SDA district buildings. In 2016, the NJDOE and the SDA surveyed these districts about health and safety projects that may qualify for state school construction funding. In response, 23 of the 31 SDA districts submitted 429 project applications to address significant unsafe, unhealthy and dangerous conditions: leaky roofs, crumbling facades, and fire safety and other basic systems. Seventy-five of those applications involved inadequate heating and ventilation systems.
Of the 429 district applications, the NJDOE approved only 15 repair projects in just four districts for state funding. Only two of the approved projects included repairing unsafe ventilation systems. The NJDOE has provided no information on whether the SDA districts were able to complete the dozens of additional ventilation projects with other available funds.
Need for State Action
Under New Jersey’s constitutional mandate for a thorough and efficient system of public education, the State is obligated to ensure students attend school in buildings that are safe and do not pose a threat to their health and well-being. While the State’s obligation on school facilities is carried out by local districts, the State cannot simply pass off the responsibility for the safety of school buildings to those local districts that lack the capacity to protect their students’ well-being.
Yet, this is precisely what the Road Back does on a crucial reopening challenge: reducing class size to social distancing standards and ensuring proper heating, cooling and ventilation systems. Remarkably, the Road Back does not mention, let alone address, the State’s own assessments and data showing the disproportionate impact of overcrowding and unsafe building conditions in districts segregated by poverty and race.
To safely reopen, New Jersey needs more than standards, guidelines and information that assume all districts face similar challenges. The NJDOE and the SDA must compile and publish existing, school-by-school data on facilities conditions against the standards for classroom social distancing and for proper heating, cooling and ventilation to protect against coronavirus spread. This must be augmented by a statewide survey of district facilities to determine current conditions and needs. Finally, if federal funds for facilities are not forthcoming, the State Legislature must make emergency facilities improvement funds available to enable those districts with priority needs, but lacking in local resources, to access necessary State funds to comply with the Road Back’s standards for student and educator safety.
“Governor Murphy has rightly – and successfully – relied on data to inform his decision-making on New Jersey’s public health response to COVID-19. If data drives the decision on when to reopen the economy, it surely has to be the basis for deciding when to reopen our public schools,” said David Sciarra, Education Law Center Executive Director. “Unfortunately, the Road Back is devoid of the data essential to inform State and school district leaders, educators, parents and others about when and under what conditions students can return to school without risk to their health, safety and well-being.”
ELC is also renewing the demand for more funding for New Jersey’s school construction program. The program was established to comply with the landmark Abbott v. Burke rulings mandating the State fund all necessary facilities improvements in the SDA districts. While significant progress in rebuilding our school infrastructure has been made, pressing facilities needs remain in districts across the state. As discussed above, COVID-19 has exposed those glaring needs, requiring prompt action by the Governor and Legislature on an issue at the heart of a safe return of students to their classrooms.
Another top priority must be an all-out effort by Governor Murphy, U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, and the entire New Jersey Congressional delegation to aggressively support the BASIC Coalition’s call for $10 billion for emergency repairs to reopen the nation’s public schools in the next federal COVID-19 relief package.
It should also be noted that the focus on school construction in New Jersey not only allows the State to meet its constitutional obligations, but also jumpstarts an economy badly damaged by the pandemic.
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