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New Jersey’s Proposed Limit on Virtual Instruction Faces Unexpected Opposition, Delaying Bill Progress
An anticipated vote on a bill that would impose new obstacles to remote schooling was postponed Thursday amidst a surge of opposition that left lawmakers puzzled.
The bill in question would place restrictions on most forms of remote schooling and introduce new hiring requirements for districts that are still struggling to fill their classrooms. Supporters of the bill argue that regulation is necessary due to the rise in remote instruction following the pandemic. During this time, student success metrics declined as some districts relied on virtual schooling for extended periods.
However, many opponents who criticized the bill during the Senate Education Committee meeting expressed concerns that it would hinder district staffing in the midst of an ongoing shortage of teachers and limit the educational opportunities available to students by mandating state approval for remote instruction that cannot be provided in person.
“We understand the concerns that led to the drafting of this bill, but the approach taken is like using a sledgehammer when a more precise solution is required,” stated Jennie Lamon, the assistant director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.
According to the bill, the state’s education commissioner would need to approve individual requests by students for virtual options for classes that are not offered in person by their schools, such as advanced foreign language courses with only a few students enrolled.
Detractors of the bill are worried that the proposed hiring requirements, which would require schools to directly employ individuals who require certification from the State Board of Examiners, would worsen the existing staffing shortage and limit the range of classes taught in schools.
“Sometimes, contracting out for personnel may be the only way that a district can offer certain classes or services to our students,” explained Jessie Young, a legislative advocate for the New Jersey School Boards Association. “Restricting the ability to contract out may have the unintended consequence of limiting educational opportunities for students when a district cannot find personnel to directly employ.”
There are exceptions in the bill that would allow districts to hire certain workers, such as substitute teachers, instructors providing individualized lessons, and individuals involved in special education services, as contractors.
Francine Pfeffer, the associate director of government relations for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, supports the bill and cautioned against the unbridled use of new technologies like virtual learning.
“Virtual instruction currently has no guardrails or limits defined in law or regulations, and we need those guardrails to prevent its inappropriate use,” said Pfeffer.
Pfeffer mentioned that under current laws, there is no guarantee that companies contracted for virtual services, no matter how limited, are employing qualified individuals to teach remote courses. While she acknowledged that advanced virtual courses for a small number of students could be effective, she emphasized that most students would suffer if virtual schooling became more prevalent.
“When you have three kids taking AP German, you can offer that virtually, but for the majority of students, they need to have a teacher physically present in the room who can immediately address their concerns and be fully engaged,” Pfeffer argued. “That cannot be achieved through a screen.”
The opposition to the bill, which was introduced in the Assembly on Monday and in the Senate on Thursday, caught lawmakers off guard.
“Despite hearing everyone’s reasons for opposing the bill, I don’t think any of us fully understand the extent of the opposition,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex). “We’re confused.”
Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) raised the possibility that some of the opposition might be driven more by concerns over costs rather than difficulties in hiring. Independent contractors do not receive the same benefits as public employees.
While most members of the panel indicated a general preference for in-person instruction over virtual classrooms, they decided to delay the vote. However, a vote could take place as early as next week, according to Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), the chairman of the education committee and the bill’s primary sponsor.
“I understand the concerns, and we will carefully review and work through them. I think we can all agree that virtual learning can have a negative impact on a child,” he stated to reporters after the meeting. “A teacher has to be physically present in the classroom.”