TRENTON – Among the main messages delivered by state lawmakers to the Department of Education at their Thursday budget hearing: Spend the new federal aid wisely and, above all else, get schools reopened.

Sen. Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, said the focus on ventilation systems and educational technology is important but that it all must serve the top priority – getting kids back into classrooms.

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“Everywhere I go, they say the same thing: When are our kids going back in school?” Diegnan said. “I tell this story to everybody. I have a 6-year-old granddaughter who’s in kindergarten and she literally has no friends. It’s scary. They’ve been quarantined now for a year. It’s just not healthy.”

The theme was pounded by multiple lawmakers, and acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan said she agrees. She said districts have been given time to address issues and overcome any apprehensions but then have to move forward.

“We must continue our efforts to return as many students safely to in-person instruction as possible, with the goal of returning all students to full in-person instruction this September,” Allen-McMillan said.

Although the number of all-remote districts is down more than half since early February, 22% of New Jersey’s public-school students attend districts that remain fully remote. Around 150 districts are in person but are mostly smaller and account for just 7% of students. Others offer a mix of both.

Sen. Mike Testa, R-Cumberland, said the state can’t leave it up to districts and should step in more forcefully to direct school openings regionally.

“I think the districts are scared,” Testa said. “There’s been I believe a chilling effect. They don’t want to have their district open and then be the subject of a superspread.”

Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, pressed Allen-McMillan to get clarification from the U.S. Department of Education about delaying the state’s standardized tests from spring to September, which the Biden administration endorsed in a letter dated Wednesday.

The plan is to replace the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment with an alternate test called Start Strong that was optional this past fall but will be mandated this year. Ruiz said it’s not clear from the letter that the USDOE realizes how much different it is – new, shorter and not a summative test.

“What I don’t want is for them to turn around and say: Hey, New Jersey, you’re doing it wrong. And then it’s June, and then we’re stuck,” Ruiz said.

Allen-McMillan said it was discussed in detail with federal officials during their review of New Jersey’s waiver request but agreed the letter needs to be clarified. She said the main goal of testing is to have all students taking the same test.

“Start Strong does address that, while it is not a replacement for NJSLA. I just want to make sure that I state that,” she said. “And they appeared to understand that during the discussions.”

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Allen-McMillan said special education students and English-language learners will still take spring exams. Ruiz suggested that while that’s happening, the NJSLA language arts assessment should be given to third and fourth graders because if they can’t read, it will hurt their chances in every subject going forward.

“If the child is not reading at grade level, their academic outcome is – it could be tie-barred to the criminal justice system,” Ruiz said.

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