TRENTON — All students must have the option to learn remotely in the fall, and schools must set clear procedures for families on how that will happen, according to guidance released Friday by the state Department of Education.
Parents will be allowed to opt out their children from in-person learning without having to demonstrate a risk of illness or other special circumstance.
The guidance was promised Monday by Gov. Phil Murphy as a way to provide flexibility to families who may not be comfortable sending their children back to school buildings even with social distancing guidelines in place.
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“My office and the Department of Education are committed to working with our families, educators and administrators as we navigate the unique challenges that the 2020-21 school year will bring,” Murphy said. “We will continue to communicate with our districts and will work diligently to find solutions that prioritize the safety of our students and staff.”
Murphy said a key factor in the shift was the state’s recently announced program that will target more than $50 million in COVID-19 relief money and private funding toward providing students with internet access and hardware. The state has estimated that as many as 230,000 students were hampered by a lack of access to technology during remote learning this past spring.
“Not everyone has space in their house, high-speed internet or the ability to go out and hire a tutor,” Murphy said. “Our plans have to encompass those objectives. Equity has to be at the center of all this.”
The new rules are a clarification to the DOE’s previously released “Road Back” guidance for schools reopening in the fall. In addition to parental concerns, the DOE said it has received requests from school districts for guidance on how to allow for all-remote learning.
“Our initial guidance document was created after holding hundreds of meetings with stakeholders ranging from educators and school support staff to parents, health experts and more,” said Kevin Dehmer, interim commissioner of education. “We anticipated this will be an evolving document, shaped by continued input from stakeholders. Our announcement today is about honoring that commitment to listen to stakeholders.”
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In addition to eligibility and policy rules, the guidance says school districts must “communicate clearly and frequently with families, in their home language, about the availability of this offering and the related procedures,” and that students receiving remote instruction “should receive the same quality of instruction that is provided to any other student.” The remote programs will have to follow the same in-person and hybrid rules for student attendance and length of school day, and schools are required to report data to the DOE about student participation in these programs.
Guidelines released last month require schools to adopt a screening policy for students and staff, seek to maintain social distancing and require staff and visitors to wear masks. Students will be encouraged, but not required, to wear masks.
The all-remote guidance is available on the Department of Education’s “Restart and Recovery: The Road Back” web page.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.