The desperate screams jolted Kayla Graham awake.
Alarmed, the 16-year-old dragged herself to the door of her Hillside bedroom and peered into the dark hallway.
All she saw was smoke.
Kayla rushed to the stairs and slid down them, staying as low as she could to avoid inhaling the thick, gray smoke. She then followed the sound of the screams, frantically racing outside to her mom and brother.
Together, they watched in horror as Kayla’s father leaped from a second-floor window to escape the fire engulfing their home.
“I was just scared,” Kayla said softly, still unnerved by the night of April 13.
A fire in the middle of a pandemic is devastating enough. A fire in the middle of a pandemic while New Jersey’s school system was in free fall pushed Kayla to the brink.
Her family moved into a hotel room, where she and her brother took turns sleeping on a pullout couch. Her personal laptop — which she used for remote learning when her school, Newark Collegiate Academy, closed because of the coronavirus — was lost in the fire.
Homeless and exhausted, Kayla was forced to tap out assignments on her iPhone for two months, the only way to avoid repeating 10th grade. She is certain she is behind as she begins her junior year.
“I felt as though I didn’t learn as much as I should have,” Kayla said dejectedly.
As it turns out, Kayla might actually be one of the lucky ones. At least her education last spring wasn’t a total loss — unlike for thousands of underprivileged and special needs students in New Jersey who were left behind in the shift to virtual learning.
They are kids like Willingboro’s Eli Lee, a special education student who missed critical services and therapy. Paterson’s Rayahn Alston, who learned “nothing” from the worksheet packets he was assigned. And Elizabeth’s Karen Simbaina, who was forced to teach her younger brother and cousin while squeezing in her own schoolwork because her parents speak little English.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit New Jersey in March, 1.4 million students were thrust into an unprecedented experiment with remote learning. For kids with high-speed internet, personal computers and stable living situations, it was a challenge.
But for those without, it was a virtual nightmare, disproportionately affecting disadvantaged students, children of color and those with special needs.
“The kids were really abandoned in multiple ways,” said Jaqueline Tobacco, the Middletown Township mother of a high school student with autism. “As a mother, I just want to go to bed and cry and never get out of bed again.”
Interviews with more than 50 parents, students, educators and experts reveal a system-wide breakdown last spring that failed the state’s most vulnerable children. Minimum guidance from federal officials, a lack of decisive action or funding from Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration and inadequate local preparation resulted in the families of at-risk students feeling forgotten, an NJ Advance Media investigation found.
Although state officials faced an unparalleled crisis, they set a low bar for what remote instruction needed to look like when schools closed in March, advocates said. The state refused to pay for laptops for low-income children, waiting until four months after schools shuttered to announce a statewide plan to finance them. And Murphy has yet to nominate a permanent schools chief to lead during a once-in-a-lifetime challenge, two months after his education commissioner stepped down.
Meanwhile, students in some low-income communities were assigned worksheets filled with lessons they already learned. Some kids, such as Kayla’s younger brother, Kamar, stopped doing schoolwork altogether yet were still promoted. Others with special needs were denied invaluable in-person summer school programs, in part because superintendents thought state guidelines were dangerously inadequate.
Some school districts like Paterson did not grade or provide feedback on students’ work, merely checking that it was completed. And others, including Trenton Public Schools, discovered as many as 40% of their students had not logged on to complete their coursework in the first weeks after schools shut down.
“As a general population, (schools) were very unprepared,” said Chris Cerf, a former state education commissioner in Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. “Some demonstrated a remarkable and admirable flexibility and nimbleness to create quality programming very quickly.
“The great preponderance struggled mightily. And some gave up altogether.”
Kayla Graham used her iPhone to complete nearly two months of schoolwork this spring. “It was a hard thing,” she said. Steve Hockstein | For NJ Advance Media
The litany of statistics is heartbreaking: Many of the 200,000 New Jersey children with special needs never received legally mandated services or therapy in the spring or summer. More than 350,000 kids were left without computer devices or internet access, the state itself projected. Even now, as districts begin to grind into gear for a new school year, the state has offered no update on how many still lack a device or internet connectivity.
The devastating toll of these failures could harm a generation of New Jersey kids for years to come. And critical deficiencies remain even as more than 230 school districts again provide all-remote instruction this fall and about 400 offer a hybrid format.
“The state has really dropped the ball,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a non-profit that advocates for disadvantaged students. He has hinted at a possible legal challenge over the state’s digital divide. “Districts need a significant amount of additional support when it comes to these vulnerable student populations or else the gaps that we had in achievement and academic outcomes are simply going to grow even wider.”
What’s arguably most alarming is six months into the crisis, the state still appears to be operating in triage mode. This summer, education advocates say, should have been used to focus on solutions for disadvantaged students. Instead it devolved into weeks of chaos spurred by ever-changing state guidelines and local disputes over whether schools should reopen, advocates said.
Murphy has said his push to reopen schools for in-person instruction was done with the state’s most vulnerable students in mind. Equity in schools continues to be a chief concern for the governor, spokesperson Alyana Alfaro said.
“Will there be ongoing challenges and obstacles in the coming school year? Certainly,” Kevin Dehmer, the state’s acting education commissioner, said Sept. 2. “This is a massive undertaking like we’ve never experienced before, and we’re still in the middle of the storm.”
But some superintendents, such as Freehold Regional’s Charles Sampson and Toms River’s David Healy, have criticized the lack of resources and sometimes contradictory guidance provided by the Murphy administration.
And the New Jersey Education Association — the largest teachers union in the state — joined with two school administrator groups last month to publicly criticize Murphy’s mandate for reopening schools, saying it is a “decision that cannot be left in the hands of nearly 600 individual school districts.”
“I feel like this was an epic fail,” said Latoya Sylvester, a mother of nine who became homeless during the pandemic. “They are suffering because of a situation that could have been handled better. The system this time has truly let them down.”
Former state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said he has “never seen a challenge as complex and profound” as pivoting to remote learning during the pandemic. Alexandra Pais | For NJ Advance Media
The coronavirus was already spreading across the Garden State when Lamont Repollet summoned the superintendents.
Repollet, then the state education commissioner, called a select group of local school chiefs to Trenton for an emergency meeting March 5, the day after New Jersey announced its first case of COVID-19.
They gathered to discuss Repollet’s plan to allow “remote instruction” days to count toward the mandated 180-day school year if the pandemic forced districts to close.
Superintendents left the meeting with instructions to plan for two weeks to one month of distance learning, said Mount Olive Township Superintendent Robert Zywicki, who attended the meeting.
Eleven days later, Murphy ordered every school in the state to shut down.
The two-week contingency plans became three-month Band-Aids. Over the coming months, New Jersey would be battered by a virus that has killed more than 16,000 residents and continues to grip the state. Yet Murphy optimistically kept hope alive last spring that schools would reopen, failing to acknowledge what many local officials saw as inevitable.
“I think everybody was caught with their pants down,” said Jennifer Rosen Valverde, an attorney who represents low-income families with students in special education. “There are factors beyond everybody’s control that led to this. At the same time, I do think there are many things that could have been done differently or done better. Those things start at the state level.”
The state’s first mistake, as Rosen Valverde sees it, was not prescriptively defining what remote instruction needed to look like. Knowing some districts would be better prepared than others, the state gave schools few minimum standards to meet beyond “a length of time sufficient to continue the student’s academic progress.”
Well-positioned districts simply handed out computers — if they hadn’t already — and immediately started synchronous instruction, live online interaction with students. Others scrambled to buy devices and hot spots if they had the means, transitioning to some form of remote instruction in the following weeks. Others simply didn’t have the resources.
“As a result, we ended up with a situation where we have one school district actually delivering teaching at certain times of the day via the internet,” Rosen Valverde said. “And then I look at other districts where it was, ‘Here is a packet. Good luck. Return it to me if you feel like it.’”
But some state officials seemed to focus on the successes, not the failures. When asked this spring about the problems with remote learning, Repollet told NJ Spotlight he would love to see more attention given to what the state accomplished.
“In my decades of experience in education, I have never seen a challenge as complex and profound,” Repollet said in March.
Repollet, who declined to be interviewed for this story, stepped down as education commissioner July 1 to become Kean University’s president.
Gov. Phil Murphy has said his push to reopen schools for in-person instruction was done with the state’s most vulnerable students in mind. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media
Dehmer — who holds degrees in economics, political science and public policy, but not education — has overseen the department since Repollet’s departure. Four months have passed since Kean announced Repollet would become president, but Murphy has provided no time frame for nominating a permanent replacement.
Leadership is important, and leadership is super important in difficult times,” said David Hespe, a former state education commissioner under two Republican governors. “The fact that we don’t have a permanent commissioner, I think, is a problem. Without a doubt.”
However, Hespe said state officials scrambled the best they could when the pandemic hit, considering the lack of clear messaging from the federal government.
“Unless you really understand that this closure is going to be months, if not extending until the next academic year, you probably don’t go down the road of making hardware purchases,” said Hespe, who served under former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman and former Gov. Chris Christie. “You definitely can make the argument that the state should have invested more heavily in technology, but as you see the situation playing out, I think it’s more difficult to criticize because of that. It just got away from everybody.”
But parents expected remote instruction to improve as schools learned how to navigate the unprecedented crisis. The results were mixed. Many educators were not trained to teach virtually or did not have the tools for synchronous instruction.
Some districts did not even grade assignments, citing logistical challenges, including the cost of software. They were allowed to mark students as present during remote learning, “unless the district knowingly determines” a student was not participating, according to the state education department’s guidance.
A few districts lost track of students who went weeks without logging in, they said. After phone calls from teachers or administrators went unreturned, schools sent truancy officers into neighborhoods to check on them. Some districts eventually had police knock on doors as a last resort, worried about kids’ health and safety.
Those visits “lit a fire under butts,” said Elizabeth Giacobbe, superintendent of the Beverly City School District.
But many students had already slipped through the cracks.
“We know that in every situation, children of color, children from low-income families and children with special needs are going to fare the worst,” said Tanya Maloney, an assistant education professor at Montclair State University. “What happened in March was gross. It was very upsetting to watch.”
Jacqueline Tobacco and her son Dustin, who has autism, make lemonade at home in Middletown. “The kids were really abandoned in multiple ways,” Jaqueline Tobacco said. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media
Kayla Graham didn’t know it would be so hard to keep up with her schoolwork.
When her family arrived at the Homewood Suites in Cranford, they noticed a business center with a computer. She sat down and tried logging on to Google Classroom, the website where she could access her assignments. But it was blocked on the public computer.
A few days later, a Newark Collegiate Academy staff member delivered a laptop to the hotel so Kayla could complete her work for the charter school. But Kayla couldn’t connect to the hotel wireless network, she said.
Frustrated, she tried using her iPhone as an internet hotspot.
“It was really slow,” Kayla said. “It wasn’t really loading.”
That’s when she turned to her iPhone to complete her assignments, including writing short essay answers for English class.
“I had to do a lot of typing,” she said matter-of-factly.
Like other schools, Collegiate Academy spent most of the spring in a “reactive phase,” said Joanna Belcher, executive director of KIPP Newark, the charter school operator that runs the school. After distributing thousands of laptops to students, KIPP’s daily attendance rate statewide was over 95% by the end of the school year, she said.
“That being said, we also knew that wasn’t the level we wanted for our kids,” Belcher said.
In June, Kayla’s family moved into a new home in Hillside, where she completed summer school on her laptop. Heartbroken over the learning her daughter missed out on, Shani Harrell decided Kayla was too far behind at Collegiate Academy. Harrell transferred her to a new school, LEAD Charter School in Newark.
“It is sad because I know that my child is not the only child going through this,” Harrell said. “I am not the only parent going through this.”
Many of the children who had no device or internet access were instead sent home with packets of paper assignments, largely consisting of review work.
Paterson Public Schools printed thousands of packets that families picked up outside schools on designated dates. Students submitted their completed work, but received no feedback, according to the district.
“Every time I think about it, my blood boils,” said Yvette Alston-Johnson, grandmother of 11 students enrolled in Paterson schools last year. “At the end of the day, they missed a chunk of learning.”
Paterson Superintendent Eileen Shafer said the district had no other choice. Her chronically underfunded schools would have needed to lay off teachers to come up with enough money to give every student a laptop.
Students in other communities logged on for virtual video chats with teachers, while not even half the students in some Paterson classes had their own computers, she said.
“That is really what the digital divide is all about,” Shafer said.
Districts needed help to close that divide. But they received little of it last school year from the Murphy administration, which continues to grapple with the colossal economic fallout of the pandemic, Sciarra said.
The administration did not buy laptops or attempt to provide emergency funding to schools, instead relying only on federal aid, including $310 million that came in the spring.
In early May, the governor vetoed a bill to buy laptops for schools, saying it would “trigger an indeterminate, unbudgeted cost, potentially amounting to many tens of millions of dollars.”
Instead, Murphy said he hoped federal stimulus funds would cover the cost. The state then advised districts on how to use existing federal funding to purchase technology, said Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the Department of Education.
“Districts have far greater flexibility to obtain devices, whereas even if the state government had the capacity to procure devices, it would take far longer because of the state procurement process,” Yaple said.
Eileen Shafer, superintendent of Paterson Public Schools, said her cash-strapped district had no other option this spring than to assign paper packets to nearly 20,000 students. Myles Ma | NJ Advance Media
On July 16 — four months after ordering schools to close — Murphy announced a $115 million plan to help districts buy computers. It included a combination of federal funds, philanthropic donations and state coronavirus relief money. The price tag is equivalent to about 0.3% of the state’s roughly $40 billion budget.
“We know that in many communities, the majority of students and educators were able to virtually connect every day,” Murphy said. “But when it comes to educating our kids, I think we can all agree that words like ‘many’ and ‘most’ are simply not good enough.”
Paterson used $3.4 million in federal CARES Act aid in June to order 13,845 Chromebooks. But the computers were not going to arrive in time for the new school year.
Instead, the district scrambled to refurbish thousands of old laptops and placed a separate Chromebook order, which arrived in the final week of August, delivering 9,600 computers.
Murphy’s administration has no excuse for failing to have a better plan for closing the digital divide, Sciarra said.
“The state’s initial response so far, by and large — even up until now — has been essentially to pass the buck off to local school districts,” he said.
New Jersey is responsible for addressing educational inequities, such as the state’s obligation to fund school construction projects in certain low-income districts — a requirement upheld by court rulings, Sciarra said.
With schools closed, a laptop and reliable internet access are now as necessary as a proper school facility, he said. Murphy should take responsibility for it, Sciarra added, rather than relying on federal funds and philanthropy.
“If you can’t be connected, you can’t get an education. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
Other states face similar challenges and have not yet closed their technology gaps either, Sciarra said. But there is more New Jersey can do, such as following California’s model of striking a deal with Apple and T-Mobile for discounted iPads with built-in LTE internet for up to 1 million students, he said.
State leaders faced significant challenges, said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, the chair of the Senate Education Committee. But the fact that New Jersey still doesn’t have a device in the hand of every child is unacceptable, she said.
“On the technology side, I think we failed,” Ruiz said. “Enormously.”
The governor pressed hard for schools to reopen, in part because students without devices needed to return to classrooms, he said this summer. The state designed its 104-page school reopening roadmap in late June to give local officials flexibility to meet the disparate needs of districts large and small, affluent and poor.
“The administration remains committed to ensuring our students have access to the best education possible,” Alfaro said. “We will continue to closely collaborate with our school districts to find solutions for families and communities during this challenging time.”
But students who can’t log on for virtual school remain the biggest concern for teachers, said Steve Baker, spokesman for the NJEA.
And the longer school buildings remain closed, the greater the chasm of academic inequities will widen for low-income students, children of color and students with disabilities.
“Those are things that keep me awake nightly as an administrator as well as a parent, that loss of learning and how do we recapture it,” Linden Superintendent Marnie Hazelton said.
Students will remain at home to start the school year in Newark, Camden, Trenton, Paterson, Atlantic City and many other low-income communities.
Of the 31 school districts that receive state financial support for construction projects (formerly known as Abbott districts), only three announced plans to open their doors this month.
Has the education system done enough to make sure those children aren’t left behind again?
“The answer is a flat no,” Sciarra said.
Richelle Lee and her son Eli, 8, at home in Willingboro. Eli has autism and has been home without special education services. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media
Kayla’s younger brother gave up.
Kamar Graham, 14, has a learning disability and is in special education courses. He lost his phone and computer in the fire and didn’t receive a laptop from Hillside Public Schools afterward, he said.
Without his special education support and with no device, he stopped doing schoolwork altogether in mid-April, he said.
He was promoted to high school anyway.
“I feel like it might have me behind when I go to ninth grade, but I will try to keep it up,” Kamar said.
Many families were not equipped to support special needs students academically when schools closed, let alone replicate intensive services such as physical therapy.
Away from their classrooms, students struggled to focus, making learning a herculean task. Social and behavioral regression was rampant. Physical decline set in as some students refused to wear support braces and missed weeks of legally required therapy.
Lauren Bergner, of Wood-Ridge, said her potty trained 6-year-old started wetting himself again. Other children with special needs returned to sleeping in their parents’ beds or experienced recurring meltdowns. In many cases, academics became an afterthought as families struggled just to get through the day.
“I would say it was horrid,” said Rosen Valverde, who primarily represents families living in low-income Essex County communities. “I have no other term for it than that. But I can’t blame school districts for it. At least not at the beginning.”
Federal law does not specifically address an extended school closure for students with disabilities, according to guidance sent to states. Instead, children legally entitled to full-time aides, counseling and physical therapy fell under a vague state directive calling on schools to provide those services “to the most appropriate extent possible.”
So families were pitted against schools in a losing fight for special education services, parents said. Many students still don’t know if they will receive in-person services this fall, Rosen Valverde said.
“The system was already broken, and the system for remediating these issues is also broken,” she said. “Has the pandemic made it worse? Absolutely.”
To begin with, kids were denied legally mandated therapy.
When schools first closed, a state rule prohibited them from offering services — such as speech, physical or occupational therapy — virtually. Many special education students were left in limbo, receiving only a packet of assignments or a schedule for when to log onto a computer for academic work.
Families had no idea what would happen next. Parents, completely unprepared for their new role, attempted to lead therapies that specialists usually performed.
“They are moms and dads,” said Richelle Lee, whose 8-year-old son, Eli, experience regression in his speech. “Some of them are accountants. Some of them are bank tellers. But they are not teachers. They are not educators. They are not occupational therapists. They are not physical therapists. You are asking these parents to do something that they don’t have any ability to do.”
The state reversed its rule prohibiting virtual therapies in April, but those services never returned for some students — especially those in low-income public schools, Rosen Valverde said.
Many parents refused to sign a widely used waiver that released schools from liability if students were harmed during virtual therapy sessions overseen by families. It also barred parents from requesting in-person make-up services.
Proponents of the waiver said parents needed to be aware of the risks of virtual therapy and give permission, like they would for a field trip or participation on a sports team.
Special education advocates blasted it.
“It is basically asking the parents to waive the child’s rights,” said Peg Kinsell, policy director for SPAN Parent Advocacy Network. “That part was infuriating, to be honest with you.”
The state Department of Education ordered schools to stop using the waiver on April 30. But some districts did not resume virtual services before June, advocates said.
Daryl Graham, Shani Harrell and their children, Kamar and Kayla Graham, visit their old home on Bloy Street in Hillside that was destroyed by fire. Steve Hockstein | For NJ Advance Media
Rosen Valverde questions whether the governor’s indecision in the spring contributed to the failure of schools to improve their remote learning programs.
Murphy waited until early May — after 45 other states ordered or recommended districts close for the remainder of the school year — to say New Jersey schools would not reopen, according to an EdWeek tally.
“(Schools) then kept on thinking, ‘It’s just going to be another two weeks, or maybe two more weeks after that,” Rosen Valverde said. “I understand you want to leave some glimmer of hope for people. But that glimmer of hope kept many districts from actually properly preparing.”
Many families of special education children were desperately hoping students could return in July for the Extended School Year program, designed to prevent summer learning loss. But state health guidelines for the ESY program came after most districts had already decided the program would have to be virtual.
The guidelines were released as soon as it was possible, with the health and safety of students and educators in mind, Yaple said.
But the guidance was also dangerously lacking, some superintendents said. The state suggested schools follow the same safety guidelines designed for summer camps.
“I should not need to say that a summer camp in no way equates to the complexities of an ESY program,” South Brunswick Public Schools Superintendent Scott Feder wrote in a letter to Murphy. “Quite frankly, this communicates a lack of understanding and sensitivity to students with special needs and their families.”
Thousands of special needs students will still be at home this fall, likely without aides and other required services. Many families were still in the dark just days before the school year started about when those services might be made up.
Those students are a priority, Murphy has said, but their education comes with complex health questions, and schools must weigh the risk of COVID-19 exposure.
The best solution for special education families this fall might be in-home instruction with support from aides and therapists, Cerf said.
But schools don’t necessarily have enough staff willing to go into homes, said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. And contractual and liability barriers prevent them from sending any personnel outside school buildings, let alone during a pandemic.
“There are a lot of hurdles that would need to be overcome,” Bozza said.
That’s why a statewide plan for special education should have been at the top of the priority list, said state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris, who criticized the Murphy administration.
“We should have had a plan in the works for months. The Legislature should have been involved, holding open committee hearings to determine the best ways to approach this,” Pennacchio said. “Where’s the plan, any plan, that could be properly vetted out and discussed?”
National special education advocates have already taken legal action, filing a class-action lawsuit in New York that would force makeup services for students across the country.
But it comes too late for some.
Kamar began a new school year Sept. 8 with all-remote courses, and now has a district-issued laptop for live instruction from teachers.
The district was unable to provide computers and hotspots to all students in the spring, but has since used federal funds to close its digital divide, Superintendent Robert Gregory said.
“Our virtual learning program this fall has drastically improved compared to what occurred this spring,” he said.
Kamar’s mother worries he might be too far behind for virtual classes to help him.
He is still not receiving his special education services, and she works during the day so she can’t be home to supervise him.
A computer gives him access to class, but it doesn’t set him up for success, she said.
“It is sad,” she said. “He is able to play football, but he is not able to go inside a school and learn.”
About this multipart series: The coronavirus pandemic thrust 1.4 million New Jersey students into an unprecedented experiment with remote learning. NJ Advance Media interviewed more than 50 parents, students, educators and experts to investigate the lasting consequences of an unfinished school year for underprivileged students, children of color and those with special needs. Part 2, focusing on students in special education, comes later this week.
Adam Clark may be reached at email@example.com.