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Lampitt: Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on educational disparity

By Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt

Almost overnight New Jersey’s schools, and schools throughout the country, were forced to reimagine the way they provide education to their students. Students and teachers alike are finding themselves in uncharted waters, facing new challenges posed by remote instruction provided through video chats and other virtual tools. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed business as usual for nearly everyone, and our K-12 educators are continuing to step up and problem-solve so our children’s educations do not fall behind.

While our educators are serving on the frontline of the pandemic in a very different way to our health care professionals, first responders, grocery store workers and others, they too are making up an incredibly essential part of our coronavirus response and we thank them deeply.

Transitioning from teaching in the classroom at school to at home through online platforms as seamlessly as possible would be tough under any circumstance, but it is considerably more so today provided the abrupt transition to remote learning and the fact schools had no precedent to guide them in delivering long-term remote instruction prior to COVID-19. From navigating the ins and outs of new online learning platforms to adapting curriculum to accommodate for limited resources that students can access from home, the work our teachers and school administrators are doing is truly extraordinary and deserves all of our commendation.

During these past weeks of physical school closures, there have been some growing pains and there will likely be more, especially, as we look to address a widening gap of educational opportunity. Students with limited to no access to technology will continue to fall behind as many schools rely on students accessing online class materials on a near daily basis. Additionally, students who require special accommodations under Individualized Education Plans, English as a Second Language students, those who rely on school meals, and others who lack adequate support at home will face new challenges in this nontraditional school setting.

This is why legislation (A-3904) championed by Assemblyman John Burzichelli, which was recently signed into law, is so crucial. Beyond allowing remote instruction to count toward the 180-day requirement for schools during public emergencies, this new law lays the groundwork for regulations that will guide schools on what they must do to ensure all student needs are met under virtual and remote learning programs today and in the future. In particular, it helps address the delivery of special education to the nearly 250,000 students with disabilities in New Jersey, allowing speech language services, counseling, physical and occupational therapy, and behavioral services to be delivered through online platforms.

Thankfully school districts began taking creative action as soon as this virus hit our state, exhausting all resources available to them to address gaps where they persist. Acknowledging the unique impact of the digital divide, some districts provided students with laptops at the outset as well as paper packets where necessary. Network providers are also stepping up, offering free broadband for low-income families. Together these strategies are helping students and educators prepare for an academic year that might end before school buildings can reopen.

We must do all we can to ensure the challenges of delivering in-home instruction during this crisis do not exacerbate disparities in educational opportunities. It is important that at all levels of government and in all of our communities, we continue to find ways to support teachers and get students the resources they need. And when this public health emergency subsides and we begin to go back to business as usual, we cannot allow our focus on diminishing educational inequalities to become another casualty of the pandemic. We must continue our work to close the gaps in educational opportunity for all students in our state.

As one of the leading states for public school education in America, now cannot be the time we let any student or teacher get left behind.

This op-ed was published by the Courier Post on May 1, 2020:–LxfJr2jbXRI4sJE9VQy8Yo