By Chris Lundy and Bob Vosseller
TRENTON – While several school districts have given parents the choice of whether to send their children back to school in September, the governor seems to be giving the choice to districts.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced on Aug. 12 during one of his daily coronavirus briefings that every school will be allowed to open schools to in-person education in September. There are numerous safety regulations that schools must follow in order to reopen. If they are not able to do so, they can open virtually as long as they follow educational requirements.
“There is no ‘one size fits all’” when it comes to districts in New Jersey, Murphy said. Therefore districts must do what is safest for students.
His comments came as parents and teachers across the state voice concerns about live instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Jersey school districts are currently finalizing their individualized reopening plans – most of which include a rotation of students in schedules of in-school learning and remote instruction during the week.
The New Jersey Education Association, the union representing most of the state’s teachers and school staff, called on the governor to open all schools in the state by remote-learning only in September.
The union originally called on schools to test every teacher and student for coronavirus infection periodically. This would have cost millions of dollars for school districts across the state.
Previous to the Aug. 12 announcement, the NJEA, joined by two smaller unions that represent administrators, supervisors and principals, announced that they sent Murphy a letter requesting he mandate remote-only learning to start the 2020-21 school year.
That letter states that for several months state educators and administrators “have been working tirelessly to find a way to safely bring students back into school buildings in September. Now, with less than a month remaining before schools are scheduled to reopen, it is time to reluctantly acknowledge that goal is simply not achievable.”
Union officials maintain that reopening under the current conditions presents, “too great a risk to the health of students and schools staff,” the letter went on to say, adding that the state’s nearly 600 school districts should not be left to their own devices to decide on individual reopening plans.
The NJEA letter also states, “the facts are not in our favor. Our nation is in the middle of an uncontrolled pandemic. Our state, while doing better than many others, has not yet stopped the spread of this virus, particularly among the same young people who are scheduled to return to school in under four weeks.”
“We remain committed to getting back to in-person instruction as soon as it is safe. It is not safe yet,” the letter stated in conclusion.
Murphy said on Aug. 12, “The Dept. of Education has put forward strong guidelines that put a premium on the health and safety of students and staff while allowing in person instruction to resume. However we recognize that for some districts there are legitimate and documentable reasons why some of these core health and safety standards cannot be met on day one.”
The governor added, “for these districts today we are reaffirming our commitment to have the flexibility to do what is best for their school community.”
He added that public and non-public schools must certify to the DOE that they can meet the health and safety standards made to resume in-building instruction.
“Districts that can not meet the health and safety standards for safe in-person instruction will begin their school year in an all remote fashion,” Gov. Murphy said. Such school districts must spell out their plans for satisfying these unmet standards and a date that they anticipate being able to meet them to resume in-person instruction.
He said the administration has spoken with health experts beyond the state, parents “and countless other stakeholders and not only have spoken to them but we have listened.”
“Our focus on protecting students, families and educators has not changed. When our schools open in September they must be able to provide the high quality education to all students that is a hallmark of New Jersey,” the governor added.
Gov. Murphy added, “we know the first day of school will not be like any other in our history.”
Boards of Education in Monmouth and Ocean counties are set to meet within the next week to complete their reopening plans. At least one local superintendent suggested their district would not reopen at least partially due to negotiations with the NJEA over reopening policies.
Several states have already started their school year such as in Georgia where a student was suspended after she posted photos of a hallway in her school which featured students who were not wearing masks and were in a close crowd during a class change.
Ironically, while her suspension was eventually lifted, her school had to close due to the spread of the virus. Some schools in other states closed prior to students even arriving after cases were reported among staff.
Superintendents in Florida called on their governor, Ron DeSantis, to provide testing kits.