School districts that spent the summer adjusting to ever-changing guidance from the state now find themselves having to consider last-minute changes to account for shortages of supplies and staff as the first day of the new year approaches.

Some districts have already started and others have delayed their opening. Some weren’t scheduled to start until next week and others have already flipped the switch to an all-virtual opening.

Frank Belluscio, deputy executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, said the most common reason for virtual school openings is that schools are waiting on things like cleaning products and special air filters.

“Most often the reason is there’s been a backorder on personal protective equipment,” Belluscio said. “There are certain types of equipment that districts need in order to maintain social distancing or other health protocols and it has not been easy to get. They’ve been on back order.”

There are some cooperative buying services available and the Legislature is working on a bill that would direct the state to contract with suppliers through which districts could then place orders.

“Ideally, I think if you asked most districts, they would want the state to develop a supply line and provide it to the school districts,” Belluscio said.

Among districts’ latest challenges are a shortage of teachers, substitutes and bus drivers.

Teachers can elect to take a 12-week leave of absence, 10 weeks of which are paid, for things such as a child-care challenge if their child’s school or daycare is closed.

“If they qualify, it does have to be granted, so that’s another factor that has been out there for school districts and has certainly complicated their planning for the upcoming school year,” Belluscio said.

Even before the pandemic, there was some concern about a shortage of bus drivers. That has been compounded by the need for bus services to run extra routes, to ensure students can keep socially distanced. Some districts have asked parents to drive their children to school, to reduce demand.

Belluscio said the state could help by easing some training requirements that aren’t needed.

“One is you need to know how to repair the vehicle, and you need to be able to repair it if it breaks down. That really is not something that school bus drivers do,” he said.

Enter your number to get our free mobile app

Around $280 million in emergency federal aid is being distributed to elementary and secondary schools in New Jersey but a summer survey by the NJSBA found 62% of school administrators say that’s not sufficient.

The American Association of School Administrators estimates that nationwide costs for personal protective equipment and sanitation would be around $490 per student. The CARES Act provides less than half of that, though the state will supplement that with $100 million in additional federal aid.

“When you look at the additional funding that’s there, most administrators have indicated that the CARES Act funding was not enough to cover it,” Belluscio said.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.