New Jersey Bill to Limit Virtual Instruction Stalls Amid Surprise Opposition

Measure creating new hiring rules, limiting remote schooling could return next week.

This is a photo of a person typing on the computer.
Lawmakers held the bill after a surprise wave of opposition to new hiring rules and limits on remote schooling it would create.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for Maybach Media Newsletter

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

The held bill would limit most instances of remote schooling and levy new hiring requirements on districts still struggling to staff up their classrooms. The bill’s supporters said regulation is needed amid an uptick in remote instruction following the pandemic, which saw student success metrics decline as some districts moved to virtual schooling for months at a time.

But the numerous opponents who assailed the bill to the Senate Education Committee warned it would restrict district staffing amid a longstanding shortage of teachers and cut student offerings by requiring state approval for remote instruction that a district can’t provide in person.

“We certainly can appreciate some of the concerns that prompted the drafting of this bill, but the approach that was taken really, for lack of a better description, is a sledgehammer when a scalpel will be more appropriate,” said 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 options of classes their schools can’t offer in person, like advanced foreign language courses serving handfuls of students.

Critics say they worry the bill’s hiring requirements, which mandate schools to directly employ everyone whose job requires a certification from the State Board of Examiners, would exacerbate existing staffing shortages and could limit the sorts of classes taught at a given school.

“Contracting out for personnel may be the only way that a district can offer certain classes or services to our students,” said Jessie Young, 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.”

Exceptions in the bill would allow districts to bring some workers — like substitute teachers, instructors providing individualized lessons, and those involved in special education services — on as contractors.

Francine Pfeffer is the associate 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 like virtual learning is introduced, it “starts getting used without bounds.”

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

Under current law, Pfeffer said, there is no guarantee companies contracted for virtual services, however limited, are employing people qualified to teach remote courses. She warned that, while advanced virtual courses serving a small number of students could work when taught remotely, most students would suffer if virtual schooling became more common.

“When you have three kids to take AP German, you can offer that virtually, but for the vast majority of students, students need to have that teacher in front of the room who can address their concerns right away and is on top of it,” Pfeffer said. “You cannot do that through a screen.”

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

“I think all of us who’ve spoken so far don’t really understand the level of the opposition, even though everybody spoke, said their reasons,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex). “We’re confused.”

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

Though the panel’s members indicated they generally support limiting the prevalence of virtual classrooms in favor of in-person instruction, most backed holding off a vote. But one could come as early as next week, said Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), the education committee’s chairman and the bill’s prime sponsor.

“I understand the concerns, so we will go through and I think we will work it out. I think everyone is, in theory, in agreement that virtual learning can have a negative impact on a child,” he told reporters after the meeting. “A teacher has to be in the classroom.”

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for Maybach Media Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view Maybach Media's republishing terms.

On Maybach Media Today