TRENTON — New Jersey schools can begin the academic year remotely, Gov Phil Murphy announced Wednesday, but in order to access the online option, districts will have to prove to the state they cannot reopen safely for in-person learning.
“There has to be a rationale associated with not opening at least in hybrid,” Murphy said at his regular coronavirus briefing. “There’s got to be a reason for it.”
The governor said he would be signing an executive order “officially clearing” both public and nonpublic pre-K through 12 schools and colleges and universities to reopen with some in-person classes for the upcoming academic year.
Murphy said school districts — most of which have already submitted reopening plans to the state Department of Education — will be able to resubmit their plans enumerating the challenges they face by reopening for in-person learning. Some of the factors the DOE will consider in allowing a district to go all-remote include an inability to properly social distance due to space constraints, a lack of personal protective equipment, poor ventilation or other serious health concerns.
If a district must go online-only, Murphy said, they must assure the state they will be working to reopen in-person and provide a date by which they estimate they can have students in school buildings.
Murphy also said districts will be able to delay their official start dates, something Assembly members Mila Jasey (D-Essex) and Pam Lampitt (D-Camden) have been pushing in the state Legislature.
Wednesday’s announcement marks a major shift from the governor’s assertions in recent weeks that schools reopen with some in-person learning, but was not wholly unexpected as coronavirus cases statewide have begun to creep back up and parents, teachers, administrators and community members have all pressured Murphy to rethink his in-person requirement.
Murphy on Wednesday announced an additional 484 new cases of Covid-19 and nine more deaths.
Late Tuesday night, the leaders of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association and New Jersey Education Association released a joint statement calling on Murphy and the state Department of Education to direct all New Jersey public schools to open remotely in September.
Murphy on Wednesday said his announcement was not a reversal from his previous guidance, but rather a “continuation” of the principles and policies he’s put forth in the past. By stopping short of ordering all school districts to open virtually this fall, the governor may be sending a political message that he won’t be browbeat by the NJEA into making a decision.
In a text message to POLITICO, NJEA spokesperson Steven Baker said the union stands by its statement that New Jersey schools need stronger statewide guidance around reopening.
“We believe that all districts should open remotely,” Baker wrote.
Murphy has in the past left open the possibility of rolling back his in-person plan and reiterated his belief on Wednesday that as the weeks pass, this plan, too, may change.
In July, Murphy loosened restrictions, allowing parents to opt-in to remote-only learning for their kids.
In the past few days and weeks, more districts, including Elizabeth, Newark, Bayonne and others have begun submitting remote-only plans to the DOE, hoping for the department’s approval. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka told his community last Monday, “I wouldn’t send anybody to school.”
Schools will still have to submit their plans to the DOE for approval — regardless of whether those plans call for all online learning — and continue planning for the year to come. But with so little time before September, and a likely influx of plans, it’s unclear how the department will have time to review and approve (or deny) all of the nearly 600 proposals they will receive this month.
Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer said during Wednesday’s briefing that the DOE will work “as quickly as we can” to take action on the plans, but Murphy added that the department would not “rubber stamp” any proposals without proper review.
The governor and state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said guidance from both the state health and education departments is still being finalized, hopefully by end of day Thursday.
Persichilli said the health department will divide the state into six regions and develop weekly risk assessments based on new cases, spot positivity rates and surveillance of health systems with patients exhibiting flu-like symptoms to help local health departments navigate the school year.
Not every school or every family will be best situated to begin virtual learning in the fall. According to the DOE’s most recent estimates, some 230,000 of the 1.4 million K-12 students in New Jersey do not have consistent or reliable access to the internet or a device for online learning.
In response to POLITICO’s question about how the state plans to assist districts that are unable to meet the health benchmarks for in-person reopening, but are not prepared to provide adequate virtual learning for all of their students, Murphy said “we are pounding away. … It’s a frustration for many of us.”
“In this environment, particularly, you cannot turn on a dime,” Murphy said.