Phil Murphy’s horrific lack of leadership on New Jersey school reopenings
Nothing tests leaders like a crisis. But if you think we should judge President Trump by his approach to the coronavirus pandemic, the same is true of figures like New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. The uncertainty and chaos that have turned the attempt to reopen New Jersey’s public schools into a full-scale fiasco must be laid at Murphy’s feet.
Murphy’s high-handed, big-government overreach, combined with his cowardly refusal to take responsibility for decisions that are failing Jersey’s kids, is a far more potent recipe for disaster than any of Trump’s failings. That’s something voters should remember next year if Murphy has the nerve to ask for another term in Trenton.
At the height of the pandemic, New Jersey had the highest COVID death rate in the country. Lockdowns were necessary to halt the spread of the virus, but, as with some other power-mad governors, Murphy’s rules about closing businesses and houses of worship were often arbitrary and untethered to concerns about the economy, people’s livelihoods or constitutional rights.
Now that we seem past the worst of the outbreak and a new school year beckons, that same toxic combination of arrogance and obliviousness is at play again. Only this time, the victims of his incompetence aren’t just recalcitrant gym owners. They are the children of the Garden State, their parents and their teachers, all of whom are being hurt by his feckless leadership.
Murphy decided that a one-size-fits-all approach to school reopenings didn’t make sense, and there’s something to be said for that in such a diverse state. But by giving districts a wide range of options including in-person instruction, totally remote schooling and a mix of both, he’s created a patchwork situation that has rightly angered just about everyone.
Let’s concede that the stakes here in terms of a renewed outbreak are high. If schools are not prepared to hold classes in a safe manner, the possibility exists for a new surge of infections, as happened this year in Israel when it reopened.
But with so many schools not reopening for in-person instruction, often as a result of teacher protests or the failure of the state to help districts make necessary preparations, the result is a catastrophe for a generation of children and their parents stuck at home and unable to work as a consequence.
Start with the fact that, as even the anti-in-person-classes crowd concedes, online learning is far inferior. And the fact that not all children have adequate Internet access makes it even more of a disaster. Many kids — especially the youngest — will be shortchanged. And the disparity between children in wealthier suburban districts and disadvantaged ones in the cities will be widened.
Now, get a load of this: In some suburban districts where schools are not doing in-person instruction, YMCAs are nonetheless open for child care, for those who can afford it. How can Murphy explain state rules that apparently allow child-care facilities to be open in a pandemic — yet keep public schools closed? He can’t.
Meanwhile, parents now have to scramble to find child-care spots, not to mention money to pay for them.
Murphy isn’t the only one at fault here. The teachers’ unions have done their best to obstruct school openings, perhaps because of members’ understandable fears. But at a time when grocery-store clerks are expected to show up for work the same as doctors and nurses, it’s an unpleasant surprise to learn that many educators don’t think of themselves as essential workers.
It’s also clear that not every district has done the necessary work to prepare for the demands of safe schooling in a pandemic, even if doing so may be beyond their capacity.
Yet Murphy’s failure is the most egregious. He kept the state’s citizens hanging all summer with his rules for reopening. But his hesitations, and his failure to explain his illogical, last-minute actions, have left everyone in the lurch.
New Yorkers can relate to the harm Murphy’s bizarre decisions have done: After all, Gov. Cuomo’s rules for New York — which forced nursing homes to take COVID-positive patients, resulting in thousands of deaths in those facilities — have also inflicted tremendous pain.
Yet by not ensuring that all of Jersey’s children get the education they need, Murphy’s actions will not only hurt kids but also their parents, in terms of their pocketbooks as well as their sanity. It’s beyond shameful.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin
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