“We are living in the future, and it’s turned out differently from what we’d planned.”

That line from Michael Cunningham’s novel, A Home at the End of the World, seems apropos to the current situation. No aspect of life has been left untouched by the pandemic: how we work, how we play, how we teach, how we learn, where we go, and whom we see. So much of life that was routine now requires a second and a third thought.

And as the September edition of the Review was going to press in mid-August, envisioning even the near future—the first day of school—was an almost impossible task. It was still unclear, with just two weeks to go, what school would look like across New Jersey by the time by the time this magazine showed up in NJEA members’ mailboxes.

In the first few days after the governor’s announcement, over 70 districts indicated their intention to begin the school year remotely. At press time on Aug. 19, that number was continuing to grow. Most others were still planning for a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction. It’s the reality of the year in which we’re living that predicting what school will look like from week to week, from day to day, or even from hour to hour is a crapshoot.

Of course, we’re not total strangers to this uncertainty. NJEA members helped students, families, colleagues and communities regain their footing after 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy. And as we live through this pandemic, teachers and educational support professionals (ESPs) are again going above and beyond to help their communities—to create some measure stability and joy in an unpredictable and unhappy time.

The website NJEA created to gather the stories and photos sent in by members about how they were facing the crisis, njeatogether.org, is a testament to your resilience and your generosity.

From the day school buildings closed in March, NJEA and its members focused on what needed to be done. It was nothing less than a miracle that we reinvented school overnight and completed the school year—you were the miracle workers. You also focused on what your students needed in their own remote situations, making sure they were fed, and working to provide whatever supports were possible under strict lockdown conditions. And when that wasn’t enough, you found a way to do the impossible.

Local associations and their members worked alongside administrators and boards of education to find ways to restore some measure of normalcy to students’ lives. They joined their districts’ reopening teams and struggled together with administrators and community partners to find ways to return to in-person instruction without endangering their students and colleagues.

NJEA members have  shown that schools, whether in-person or remote, are central to helping families and communities move into a future that none of us could have planned.

But as the summer wore on, we all saw example after example of COVID clusters among young people who continued to make the mistake of gathering indoors. We could not help but think of our own classrooms, cafeterias, hallways and buses. We watched the governor rightly reverse course and impose greater restrictions on indoor gatherings. We saw indoor dining promised and then delayed indefinitely because, even with the highest safety standards, the risk to restaurant employees and patrons was too great.

By August, it was clear that no level of planning, caution and care would guarantee the safety of students and staff. And even if a school opened with a hybrid plan, the scenarios that were contemplated—no group work, cafeterias closed, wearing masks and sheltering behind plexiglass unable to approach students for individual instruction—revealed that students would not be coming back to anything they would recognize as school.

That’s why NJEA—joined by the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association and the New Jersey Association of School Administrators—ultimately took the position that all schools should open remotely. Spending the precious few weeks left of summer planning complex hybrid reopenings, only to have to scrap them and go all-remote a few days or weeks into the year, was not a wise path. The time would have been better spent doing everything possible to make remote learning—while never as good as in-person instruction—the best it could be.

Knowing in advance that schools would open remotely would have helped parents as well. Teachers and ESPs are parents too and know that childcare is a challenge—especially for those deemed essential workers who cannot not stay home with their children. Parents could have spent those last weeks of summer planning for childcare in an all-remote environment, rather than juggling their children’s remote and in-person days and scheduling childcare around them, only to repeat the last-minute chaos of March if their schools go all-remote with little to no notice early in the fall.

So much is unknown about the progress of this pandemic, including how long we will be forced to stay apart to stay safe and stay alive. But under these challenging circumstances, NJEA members have shown that schools, whether in-person or remote, are central to helping families and communities move into a future that none of us could have planned. 

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