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For almost a year now our schools have been faced with unprecedented challenges as they tried to educate students while keeping them and the school staffs protected during a raging health crisis. By all counts they have done a marvelous job. 

Since the state establishes a dashboard with data on school transmission of COVID-19, Cape May County schools have recorded a total of 23 cases, this over a fall period when community spread in the county was at record levels. 

Our educators are still in combat with the virus. The slow rollout of a vaccination program probably assures that schools will close their academic year having to rely entirely on the same protections and protocols with which they started it. 

So why raise the issue of changing our schools now? Why introduce a dialogue on the future of our school systems while the virus war continues? 

The reason is that the dialogue we need is that important. Soon, perhaps later than we would like but still soon, we will start the recovery from this pandemic. As we do, a survey of the county may show much that has changed. It is not likely that we will just one day return to the status quo ante. 

One thing that has clearly changed is that vacation homes have become alternative homes. A real estate boom has seen record numbers of title transfers, many of them on homes that never went on the market. The county has become more than a place to vacation. It is increasingly seen as a place to live for an increasing share of the year. 

Changes in work patterns, allowing more remote access and the development of newer and better video conferencing tools support those who are retreating from urban landscapes and looking to more spacious environments. 

Advances in remote schooling forced by the pandemic will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on the school curriculum and teaching strategies. Certainly remote learning in the future will be a strategic tool rather than an environment of last resort. That too brings certain flexibility to where people live. 

Remote learning strategies may also finally allow teachers to be both “guide and sage.” A battle of sorts in educational philosophy had the teacher as either a “guide on the side,” a person who helps students follow their own curiosity, or, by contrast, a “sage in the room,” the person who imparts specific knowledge in a whole-class instruction model. Remote learning may open greater avenues for students to pursue, with guidance, their own curiosity without significant impact on in-class instruction. 

The point is that the pandemic, as awful and destructive as it has been, has opened possibilities for living, work and school. A return to status quo prior to the pandemic is unlikely. The question now is will we decide on how we change or just be propelled in new directions which will serve us less well? 

Our schools are a place to start taking control of the change. The county, pre-COVID-19, had about 12,500 students in 16 different operating districts with a total of over 30 individual schools spread over those districts. Three of those districts have fewer than 100 students. 

We all have great affection for our schools. They are important parts of their communities. Yet at the same time various ranking systems tell us that our schools are not among the state’s best. Rather, we are and have been middle of the pack. 

Education Weekly rankings give New Jersey top spot among the states for quality of public education. In the state’s own rankings, conducted as part of its responsibilities under the Every Student Succeeds Act, Cape May County schools score well on graduation rates, but middle of the road or lower on college readiness and other achievement indexes. 

As we come out of the pandemic, the strength of our schools may be determinative of our ability to attract and hold new populations in an environment in which people are on the move from urban centers. The decisions we make about our schools will likely place limits on or open the future to new avenues of economic development. Most importantly those decisions will impact the quality of future life of our children. 

It is time to dialogue on the future of our schools and not just allow ourselves to fall back on where we were pre-pandemic. 

Do we need over 30 schools in our county? Can we more broadly offer educational opportunities by greater sharing of resources, sharing in ways that will force us to solve logistical problems of distance, travel and technological access? Do we need 16 operating districts with separate local school boards elected in contests almost no one votes in? Is getting a handle on the better than $360 million a year we spend on public education our best single chance to improve the attractiveness of the county through addressing the single largest aspect of property taxes? 

The top-performing New Jersey schools structured differently have proven that wcan improve access to college by making our students better prepared for higher learning, and we can devise curricula to provide skills directly relevant to the county job market for those who don’t pursue college. In so doing, we can do a better job of holding our youth by providing educational avenues that lead to jobs in our economy. 

The questions are endless because the impact of educational choices has pervasive influence on our future. 

Let us know you are open to this kind of dialogue and we will find ways to facilitate it. 

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From the Bible: Not many of you should become teachers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. James 3:1-2  

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