Federal regulators approve plan for school spending ahead of September reopening.
New Jersey’s plan for spending more than $2 billion in federal money for extra services addressing the COVID-19 pandemic has won final approval from Washington, the federal Department of Education announced Thursday.
New Jersey is among the latest half-dozen states to see their plans approved under the American Rescue Plan, opening the way for the last of a massive influx of federal dollars to local school districts that will go to funding programs ranging from summer academies to coaches and training for teachers.
The approval had been expected, with some caveats, and now gives the go-ahead to the state’s plan for how schools will address the immense challenges facing them when they reopen in September as the pandemic lingers and cases, driven by the delta variant, are on the rise.
“New Jersey’s … state plan represents a significant step in our state’s road forward to empowering students, educators, and schools to safely return to in-person learning while addressing the academic, social, emotional, and mental health impacts of COVID-19,” said acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan.
The approval also comes as the Murphy administration is weighing additional mandates on schools, their students and their staff in the lead-up to the new school year.
Gov. Phil Murphy already has said that all schools must reopen to daily, in-person instruction, and last week announced a statewide mandate that all staff and students wear masks at the start of the school year.
The next day, Murphy said his administration was “working on” a mandate for all teachers to be vaccinated as well, although the details of such a plan have yet to be announced.
California on Wednesday became the first state to announce such a mandate for its schoolteachers, requiring those not vaccinated to undergo regular testing.
Overseeing the spending
The plan New Jersey presented to the federal education department in June does not go into those details but focuses on how the state will oversee the use of the federal funds. In addition, the state sets aside 10% of the funding for grant and statewide programs to be made available to districts.
Among those are new grants toward coaching and professional development for educators, not just the academic needs of students.
“Districts will use the grant funds to implement professional learning for staff to help better understand needs of their students with regards to learning acceleration and interventions,” notes the federal approval’s highlights of New Jersey’s plan.
“Funds will also be used in developing positive school climate, implementing social and emotional learning supports, supporting culturally responsive teaching practices, increasing digital and data literacy, engaging educators and parents in the community to personalize students’ learning, identifying disproportionate impacts of COVID-19, and other services to support educators meeting needs of their students.”
There had been some questions concerning New Jersey’s spending plan, with advocates maintaining that the state was violating federal “maintenance of equity” rules in accepting the federal money at the same time it was making cuts in state aid to nearly 200 districts.
The news release announcing the approval did not address these complaints, and efforts to get clarification were unsuccessful.