TRENTON – Virtual days of school for snowstorms or other emergencies could soon be allowed in New Jersey, if a bill that cleared its first hurdle in the Legislature Thursday becomes law.

Remote instruction was suddenly thrust upon teachers and students in the spring of 2020, when the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered school doors. It continued to varying degrees through the ensuing two school years but is only allowed for COVID-related reasons.

A bill endorsed by the Senate Education Committee would change that and could turn school closures into rarities, despite lingering concerns about whether online education can be delivered effectively to all children – regardless of their age, ability and broadband access.

“The transition to remote instruction in 2020 forced school districts to accommodate their students’ technology needs, and now we have an opportunity to conduct remote schooling during an emergency and not lose a day of instruction,” said Melanie Schulz, director of governmental relations for the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.

Jennie Lamon, assistant director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said the change would make for a more predictable school calendar, which she said would be welcomed by school administrators and parents.

“While these potential inequities are of definite concern and must be addressed when we’re talking about the option of expanding the use of virtual or remote instruction, our members do acknowledge the world is different now,” Lamon said. “And we have learned that instruction can be provided effectively on a remote basis.”

The New Jersey Education Association doesn’t have a position on the bill. Some teachers love the idea and others hate it, said Fran Pfeffer, the union’s associate director of government affairs.

But Pfeffer urged lawmakers to be mindful of technology limits, pointing to the town where she lives, Montgomery, where rural areas have DSL-quality internet access that can struggle with video livestream classes, especially in homes with more than one child.

And that isn’t the only challenge facing families when snow days go remote, as working parents can have a harder time finding daycare, Pfeffer said.

“It’s one thing to send your kid to a neighbor’s house to play video games, play in the snow and play cards and checkers for a snow day,” she said. “It’s another thing for parents who can’t take off from work to send their children to a home where someone is going to sit with their child – a first grader, a second grader or a severely special needs child – and get on the computer with them and hold their hand, as many parents had to do through this pandemic.”

In advancing the bill, lawmakers noted that the choice to have a day of remote school would be an option for school districts, not required.

“A number of school systems have used their federal money to buy hotspots and Chromebooks. So, it can be done,” said Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-Hudson, the bill’s lead sponsor. “… Being permissive, the school system will know who can do it and who can’t.”

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Sacco recalled that in 1978, after a particularly snowy winter, the state waived its rule requiring 180 days of school to avoid having kids in school in July.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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