Three members of the New Jersey State Board of Education and acting Commissioner of Education Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan were hosted by NJEA Vice President Sean M. Spiller for their annual panel discussion at the NJEA Convention. With the acting commissioner, State Board President Kathy Goldenberg and board members Joseph Ricca and Mary Beth Berry fielded questions from members as Spiller moderated the panel.
Allen-McMillan set the stage in her opening remarks for the sort of questions that would dominate the panel.
“The coronavirus pandemic has put all of us in the unfamiliar territory of virtual learning and hybrid teaching, making social and emotional learning more important than ever,” Allen-McMillan said. “While we know this, too, shall pass, we recognize the need to redefine what education looks like in New Jersey so that our teachers, educational support professionals, and students can be their best even in these uncharted waters.”
Appointed acting commissioner just 13 days prior to the NJEA Convention, Allen-McMillan said that she was still in the learning and assessing mode as she set her major goals for the New Jersey Department of Education.
Goldenberg was asked what the board could have been done differently in the summer to prepare for this year.
“Most important to me is that the digital divide be rectified so that all students have the opportunity to receive the bandwidth and the computer or tablets they need,” Goldenberg said. “I think we should be concentrating on more professional development geared toward remote learning.”
Goldenberg also expects more guidance from the state’s Department of Health so that the State Board and the greater education community know sooner how best to proceed.
“Everybody was learning as we went along,” Goldenberg said. “The best thing now is to be forward thinking.”
Asked about why all schools were not once again closed as the number of positive COVID test results spiked, both Allen-McMillan and Goldenberg pointed to the variance of test results in different regions of the state and the premise that local control should guide such decisions.
Multiple questions called for the suspension this year of student growth objectives (SGOs), student growth percentiles (SGPs), the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments, and various aspects of teacher evaluation. Ricca, a resident of Morris County and the superintendent of schools in White Plains, New York, called for a moratorium on SGOs and high-takes standardized tests.
“It breaks my heart to look into the Q and A here and see my colleagues fretting over things that are related to compliance and paperwork,” Ricca said. “When we get back in the classroom we can fill those gaps. Right now, we just need to make sure that our students are connected and engaged in schooling and loving learning.”
Allen-McMillan said that she is gathering information from all stakeholders to make informed recommendations on all of these matters to the board and to the governor’s office.
The commissioner and the board members noted that under current Secretary Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education (USDOE), waivers from federal testing requirements are not being considered. Under a Biden administration, the USDOE may well take a more thoughtful and realistic approach to this and other related issues during this pandemic-affected year.
Asked about the requirement for preservice educators to complete the performance assessment portion of edTPA, Allen-McMillan noted that its waiver expired on Sept. 1. She said that she has been hearing from educator preparation programs that are voicing concerns about he the practicability of candidates completing their edTPA requirements.
“We are reviewing their concerns,” McMillan said.
Berry, a former special education teacher, addressed questions about compliance with special education regulations. She acknowledged the tremendous challenges teachers and school districts face in educating students with special needs in remote or hybrid settings. Allen-McMillan noted that she is gathering information in order make the appropriate recommendations.
When the board was asked about the sustainability of the pace at which educators are working in the current environment, Ricca was quick to remind educators that they cannot help others if they aren’t taking care of themselves.
“Making sure there is a beginning and an end to the workday is so important,” Ricca said. “It becomes really easy to just allow emails and correspondence and Zoom to permeate every waking hour of your day. That will assuredly lead to higher anxiety levels and lead to the feeling of burnout. Take care of yourself and your loved ones first.”