Sunday, June 28, 2020

Reopening NJ Schools

New Jersey has finally released its long-awaited school reopening plan and the reaction has been...mixed at best.

The main takeaway is that all school buildings must be open for at least some in-person instruction, but since students will be required to be at least six feet apart in classrooms, the cafeteria and on buses, and if they can't then they have to wear a mask, this new plan will require some serious reconfiguration of people and materials. The main question is whether opening buildings and requiring stringent rules will result in greater educational outcomes than the remote learning experiment most of the nation conducted in the spring.


Releasing the new guidelines was necessary now because school districts and parents will need time to adjust their procedures in time for the late August/early September resumption of the education calendar. Schools will be required to buy barriers for between desks and maybe cafeteria tables. They will need to buy sanitizer and dispensers and enact a plan to disinfect bathrooms, playgrounds and classrooms after almost every use. Parents will need to plan their schedules around schools that will require students to be in school on some days/weeks and at home on others.

But all of this will be dependent on the least predictable variable of all: how the spread of Covid-19 will affect us. Right now, New Jersey is seeing a great, and welcome, reduction in cases, hospitalizations and fatalities. As we reopen, will we see a spike in cases, as other states have seen? My guess is that we will. And we haven't even opened indoor dining and businesses to the extent that we will in coming weeks. I just hope that everyone wears a mask, but that's unrealistic.

The most pressing problem, though, is the continued education of our students. The state budget is bound to be depleted by the economic downturn and, the expected loss of tax revenue, and the federal government doesn't seem keen to offer help. How will districts pay for the virus mitigation protocols listed in the state guidance? And what will they have to give up in order to do so? How will they also pay for the computers and software we'll need if  (when) we experience a second wave of infections in October or November and we need to shut down again?

New schedules might allow for more social distancing, but it will still require students to alternate in-class instruction with remote learning. This will mean that teachers in middle and high schools will be teaching to two audiences daily, which will require that students have computers and reliable Internet access. How are we supposed to schedule tests, writing, labs? Some of this can be done on the web, but students at home will have access to materials that might give them an advantage on an assignment. This we call cheating. What of the health issues for both students and staff? Teachers will be required to wear masks all day, while students will be "guided" to do so. There's also a section in the guidance that says that teachers with health concerns will not be penalized if they can't return to the buildings. If a teacher needs to teach remotely, will the district hire a substitute to sit with the in-school class? All of these will doubtless affect the quality of instruction.

So many concerns and questions. Districts will have until the beginning of August to work out the details, which will then change as conditions change. The result will be a school year unlike any other.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Re-Imagining the Country Begins With Education

Is this the it's-about-time-moment? I am working as best I can to make it happen, but it will take sustained effort and pressure on all parts of our society--the economic, political and social systems--to ensure that real, meaningful, practical, and positive change sticks, and becomes the future of this country.

I find it truly amazing that the Black Lives Matter movement went from being associated with the fringe that all calls for inclusive justice are treated by the white power structure and white society, to being the vanguard of the latest move to once again (!) try and convince society that black people have been treated unjustly and have been killed for no good reason, or for no reason at all. So far, this call seems to be sticking. Protests include faces of all hues, ages, and economic realities, and have continued unabated for almost three weeks. Cities and towns are being forced to recognize that they are supporting systemic racism with many of their actions, and to account for them. Corporations and sports leagues are, at least for now, professing their shortcomings and are promising to do better.

We have seen this before, but public support seems to truly be behind the movement.

But if we are to make real change to American society, it must begin with education. Education is families. Education is economics. Education is morality. Education is our best defense against those who believe that violence and more guns will solve our problems. And, of course, education is our best chance at bringing political change to this country.

Just as systemic racism has always existed, but was uncovered, again, by the killing of George Floyd, so the monstrous inequities in education were uncovered by the Covid-19 lockdowns and the move to virtual schooling. And, as always, black students, and their parents, were the losers. Many schools shut down their school years in March and April, while others maintained educational programs until June, but you didn't have to be a researcher to see that students living in less affluent areas of the country could not get an education, which is their right, because of a lack of Internet access, computer hardware, or physical spaces in which they could study. Add the fact that black workers were more likely to have to physically go to their job during the pandemic, and therefore leave children in a situation that did not readily support learning, and you have the double tragedy that has laid bare the systemic racism that's always been there.

And then there's the issue of policing. It is true that the majority of police officers are good and true and committed and hate bad colleagues. The problem is not what police officers do to earn our respect, as in a social media post that's making its way around extolling the virtue of the officers who gave their efforts and lives in tragedies such as September 11 or Oklahoma City, or during natural disasters. The issue we must address is why, perhaps in the days before and after those heroic deeds, we have examples of officer after officer telling us that it was "Guiliani time," or firing 41 shots into someone in an apartment house vestibule armed with nothing more than a wallet, or shooting a black man in the back while they were running away from the officer. And on and on.

 Let me make myself crystal clear: I support a policing department when they do their jobs, support community programs, and, like umpires, are barely visible when they are making sure that citizens follow the law. But I also support the Black Lives Matter movement because too many black people have been killed, maimed, stopped and frisked, and otherwise harassed in numbers and manners that white people are not. We can all do both. In fact, it's essential that we all do both. Because this is not a matter of a few isolated bad ones. It's a culture that must be changed. An attitude that must be eliminated. A racism that must be uprooted.

That's why we have calls to focus on education, community programs, drug treatment and rehabilitation. If we as a society can help people before they turn, or are forced to turn, to crime, then we will have turned a wide corner towards a more civil society.

And it will take money. The problem, as it's accumulated since the 1980s, is that public agencies and institutions have been made, by deliberate political design, to compete against each other for the ever-more-scarce public dollar. Tax cuts that slathered money on the already-affluent, while middle and working class incomes stagnated worsened the problem. This must stop. We need a massive redistribution of how we spend public money in this country. On the revenue side, taxes on the wealthy must go up, and the unconscionable blasphemy that is the carried interest rule for hedge funds must be repealed. We have for too long acquiesced in the fiction that corporations or wealthy people can't be taxed because they will leave their state or move to another country.


If you are so craven that the prospect of fully funding public institutions to the extent that they can fully meet their mandates and improve our society is prompting you to move, then go. And if you are a corporation that continues to use the tax system to pay no income taxes, then those laws need to be changed. Capitalism has its advantages. Rapacious capitalism, while as American as racism, must go. We need to spend money where it will effect the most public good, not in military hardware for police or walls that shrink our country, or ever more jails to house people who could have a different life if they'd had a chance when they were younger. It's time that we all thought more about the common good.

As for politics, I know that many black citizens are not thrilled by the choices we have for president, and that Joe Biden's support for the 1994 Crime Bill is especially odious. We know, though, what will happen if the president is reelected with a GOP majority in the Senate. More conservative judges and more support for a militarized police force. More racist voices and a backlash against any gains that will have occurred between now and next January. For me, the choice is clear. I hope it will be for you.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest