As New Jersey school districts prepare to reopen for the 2020-2021 school year with modified schedules and socially distant classrooms, education officials say they are hearing the same question from parents over and over again: Can I just keep my kid at home?
The recent rise in COVID-19 cases in nearby states and the possibility of a second wave of the coronavirus later in the year has many families unsure if they want their children sitting in classrooms.
When Gov. Phil Murphy was asked last week what parents should do if they are thinking of opting out of sending their kids back to school, he directed families to their local school officials.
“That’s going to be a district question,” Murphy said.
What is known is New Jersey law says children between ages 6 and 16 must be getting some regular schooling — either in public school, private school or “equivalent instruction” at home or elsewhere.
So, what can a parent do in a pandemic if they don’t want their kids in the classroom? Here are four options:
1. Request remote learning from your school district
New Jersey’s state guidelines for reopening schools, outlined in “The Road Back” report released last month, do not include instructions on how districts should handle families who want to opt-out of in-person classes.
However, state officials have said students should not be “penalized” if they request continuing full-time remote learning at home similar to what they were doing last spring when schools closed.
Remote learning would likely involve students getting text books, school-issued laptops and daily assignments from their teachers. The remote learning students would likely just skip the in-person classes at school, doing all of their work from home.
The benefit would be that students could continue socially distancing with their families. However, many students, especially elementary-age kids, would need daily help from an adult with their schoolwork. And, of course, they would miss the interaction with their peers that many educators say is an important part of schooling.
The minimal direction from the state Department of Education on how to set up optional remote learning programs for the fall has left some school officials frustrated. Many districts already have surveys and systems in place for families to request full-time virtual learning for the 2020-2021 school year.
Some schools have said they expect between 10% and 40% of families to opt out of in-person classes.
In the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District, more than half of parents indicated in a survey that they may want an all remote learning plan, said David Aderhold, the district’s superintendent of schools.
“It is important for parents to understand that an all virtual model is not contemplated in ‘The Road Back’ plan and ultimately the district will need further guidance and approvals from the NJDOE to allow parental requests to be honored,” Aderhold wrote to parents.
Many schools have promised their remote learning programs will be improved and better organized this year because they have had more time to train teachers and plan than they did in the rush to close last March.
2. Start home-schooling
Many people called the remote learning public school students were doing at the end of the last school year “home-schooling” — but that’s not the traditional definition of the term.
True home-schooling involves parents or guardians telling their local school board they are withdrawing their child from the public school system, then setting up an education program of their choice. Students can learn at home or elsewhere.
For families dissatisfied with their school district’s remote learning curriculum, home-schooling may be an option. There are numerous tuition-free and paid curriculums available, including online learning websites and religion-based programs.
The National Home School Association and the New Jersey Homeschool Association are among the groups with resources for those exploring the idea. They warn parents that home-schooling can be time consuming and a lifestyle change for many families and the decision should not be made lightly.
Laws on home-schooling vary from state to state. In New Jersey, the state allows children to receive the “equivalent instruction elsewhere than at school,” including at home.
“The New Jersey Department of Education encourages parents to notify the local board of education of the intent to educate the child elsewhere than at school so that questions do not arise with respect to the parent’s compliance with the compulsory education law,” the department said.
Your home school curriculum does not need to be approved by the local school board and home-schooled students are not monitored or tested by New Jersey officials to see what they are learning. Parents or other teachers don’t need to be certified or have teaching licenses.
Home-schooled high school students can’t get a traditional state-issued diploma in New Jersey, but they are able to take the General Educational Development, or GED, test or go through the High School Proficiency Assessment program to get a diploma.
3. Try ‘micro-schooling’
Some families have been exploring versions of “micro-schooling” during the pandemic. The “micro” trend involves getting groups of about four to 12 students together to do schoolwork either with a hired tutor or under the watch of a rotating roster of parents.
The micro-schools can meet daily in one space or rotate between the students’ houses.
Proponents say micro-schooling and similar alternative schools can allow students some social interaction each day while limiting the possible exposure to the virus they would encounter in a larger school. Families can also split the cost of purchasing a curriculum and hiring a tutor or teacher to free parents up to do their own work.
Micro-schools can provide an option for students who do not do well with Zoom or other video conferencing methods most public schools have relied on for lessons during remote learning.
The micro-school model can also be easily tweaked to fit the students’ learning styles and circumstances. Some New Jersey families have begun soliciting parents on Facebook and other social media sites to form their at-home micro-schools.
“It’s truly a cornucopia of school models out there; we just need to get the word out so no child has to feel lost or left behind,” said the Microschool Coalition, a Washington State-based group that provides resources for the alternative schools.
4. Explore private school and charter school options
For parents uncomfortable with how their local public school are handling the COVID-19 crisis, public charter schools and non-public schools are always an option. New Jersey has a wide array of private schools, prep schools, Catholic schools, yeshivas and other religious-run institutions.
The state Department of Education has a directory of private school options and charter schools in each county.
Many of the private schools are dealing with the same questions as public schools: Can they set up socially-distant classrooms? Should they require students to wear masks? Should they continue remote learning?
The state’s “Road Back” guidelines for reopening were written for public schools, but many private schools say they will meet or exceed the state’s minimum guidelines when students return.
The Lawrenceville School, one of the state’s most exclusive private schools, says it is planning to reopen in the fall with a combination of in-person and online learning, single rooms for boarding students, small class sizes and coronavirus testing both before and after students arrive on campus.
“Our plan is the result of months of hard work. A leading environmental health and engineering firm continues to advise and review our plan, which incorporates recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the State of New Jersey,” Stephen Murray, head of the Lawrenceville School said in a letter to parents.
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