New Jersey bill to limit virtual instruction stalls amid surprising opposition

By | December 18, 2023

This article was originally published in New Jersey Monitor.

An expected vote on a bill that would create new barriers to remote education was postponed Thursday amid a wave of opposition that left lawmakers scratching their heads.

The bill would limit most remote learning and impose new hiring requirements on districts still struggling to staff their classrooms. The bill’s supporters said regulation is needed as remote instruction increases due to the pandemic, which has seen student success rates drop as some districts shifted to virtual learning for months.

But the numerous opponents who challenged the bill in the Senate Education Committee warned that it would limit district staffing amid a long-standing teacher shortage and reduce the supply of students with passage of the state to require remote instruction that a district cannot provide in person.


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“We can certainly appreciate some of the concerns that led to the drafting of this bill, but the approach that has been taken is in reality, for lack of a better description, a sledgehammer when a scalpel would be more appropriate,” says Jennie Lamon, assistant director. of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

The bill would require the state’s education commissioner to approve students’ individual requests for virtual classes that their schools cannot offer in person, such as advanced language courses for a handful of students.

Critics say they worry the bill’s hiring requirements, which require schools to directly hire anyone whose job requires certification from the state board of examiners, would worsen existing staff shortages and limit the types of classes taught at a given school. could limit.

“Outsourcing may be the only way a district can provide certain classes or services to our students,” said Jessie Young, legislative advocate for the New Jersey School Boards Association. “Limiting the ability to outsource may have the unintended consequence of limiting educational opportunities for students when a district cannot find staff to hire directly.”

Exceptions in the bill would allow districts to use certain employees — such as substitute teachers, instructors who teach individualized classes and those involved in special education services — as contractors.

Francine Pfeffer is deputy director of government relations for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which supports the bill. Pfeffer warned that when new technology, such as virtual learning, is introduced, it “begins to get used without limits.”

“There are no guardrails, there are no limits on virtual education anywhere in the law or in the regulations, and we need those guardrails to prevent it from being used in ways that are inappropriate,” she said.

Under current law, Pfeffer said there is no guarantee that companies contracted for virtual services, no matter how limited, will employ people qualified to teach courses remotely. She warned that while advanced virtual courses might work for a small number of students if delivered remotely, most students would suffer if virtual education became more common.

“If you have three kids taking AP German, you can offer that virtually, but for the vast majority of students, the students need to have a teacher in the classroom who can immediately address their concerns and be on top of things. Pfeffer said. “That is not possible via a screen.”

The opposition to the bill, which was introduced in the Assembly on Monday and the Senate on Thursday, took lawmakers by surprise.

“I think all of us who have spoken so far don’t really understand the level of opposition, even though everyone has spoken and stated their reasons,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex). “We are confused.”

Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) wondered whether some of the opposition stemmed more from costs than from difficulties in hiring. Independent contractors do not receive the same benefits as government employees.

While panel members said they generally support limiting the presence of virtual classrooms in favor of in-person instruction, most were in favor of delaying a vote. But that could happen as soon as next week, said Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), chairman of the Education Committee and the bill’s lead sponsor.

“I understand the concerns, so we’ll keep going and I think we’ll get there. I think everyone agrees in theory that virtual learning can have a negative impact on a child,” he told reporters after the meeting. “There must be a teacher in the classroom.”

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