Virtual no longer an option if it snows, but some N.J. educators want to change that.

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This article was written by Rob Jennings of NJ Advance Media for on November 14, 2021

Some prominent educators are pushing to change New Jersey law and allow remote learning from home whenever the need arises, such as when it snows.

It is a not a new discussion, but one that seems poised to draw additional attention due to the reliance on virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

A 10-member committee organized by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators met for the first time Tuesday and will be drafting a proposal for the next legislative session starting in January, according to the group’s executive director, Richard Bozza.

“This option should be available for school districts to consider,” Bozza said.

A spokesperson for the state’s largest teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association, said it would hold off on commenting until seeing any new proposals.

“If there was something, we’d certainly look at it and likely weigh in,” NJEA spokesperson Steve Baker said on Wednesday.

Bozza, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, said it was led by Melanie Schulz, the organization’s director of government relations. Rather than gathering at a location, the meeting was conducted virtually.

While virtual learning was allowed starting in March 2020 and for the entire 2020-21 school year, via an executive order from Gov. Phil Murphy, it remains mostly prohibited under the state law requiring at least 180 days of in-person instruction.

The only exceptions are when the closure lasts more than three consecutive school days and is due to a declared state of emergency, declared public health emergency, or a directive by the appropriate health agency or officer to institute a public health-related closure, explained state education department spokesperson Shaheed M. Morris.

Bozza referenced school closings in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida as an example of the type of circumstance where having the option to offer virtual learning is reasonable.

“It would be voluntary,” he said.

Efforts to change New Jersey’s law date to at least 2015, when the Bergen County Association of School Administrators first endorsed learning from home as an option.

In 2016 and 2018, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-37th District, introduced legislation that would permit up to three days of “virtual instruction” when schools close due to weather or other emergencies.

Neither bill came up for a vote.

“We’ve talked about this for years,” Bozza said.

Prior to the pandemic, exceptions to the in-person requirement were rare.

Even after Superstorm Sandy resulted in extended school closures in the fall of 2012, then-education commissioner Christopher Cerf declined to waive the 180-day rule.

The lone bill pending in the New Jersey Legislature on virtual learning was introduced in January 2020, two months before the pandemic, and would direct the state education department to study the feasibility of using virtual learning to offset teacher shortages in some districts.