TRENTON — Teachers and staff in masks, more cleaning and disinfecting, and rearranged classrooms will be among the changes in place when New Jersey’s public and nonpublic schools reopen this fall, according to guidance released by the Department of Education on Friday.
“Social distancing will be our guiding principle,” Gov. Phil Murphy said as he announced the reopening regulations during his daily coronavirus response briefing Friday afternoon, joined by Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet.
School officials and parents were eagerly awaiting this guidance to begin planning for the upcoming school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schools were closed to in-person instruction in mid-March as the virus began to spread across New Jersey.
Repollet noted that parents and educators, while doing an “amazing job” with remote learning, felt it wasn’t effective for students.
“It is becoming abundantly clear that children need to return to a school environment in some capacity, and we need to do so safely,” Repollet said. “This is a matter of educational growth, and it’s a matter of equity.”
Murphy said that administrations will be given flexibility to reopen in the way that best fits their districts, which may include continued remote learning or a hybrid in-person and remote model depending on the capabilities of the district.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach that we can possibly take,” Murphy said, noting the 577 public school districts and numerous charter and other nonpublic schools in the state. “The ability to make local decisions has always been a hallmark of education in New Jersey, and it still is.”
Repollet also said that although the guidance gives great flexibility to school districts on how they reopen, it was created with equity in mind and includes ways for districts to get more funding to implement their plans.
The 90-page document details some minimum requirements for school districts, including developing a reopening plan; establishing a school “pandemic response team;” maintaining social distancing of at least 6 feet inside the classroom to the maximum extent possible and keeping windows open when weather allows; requiring staff to wear masks and encouraging students to do so where possible or when social distancing cannot be maintained; adopting enhanced cleaning procedures; and maintaining social distancing on school buses or requiring masks be worn.
If cafeterias or group dining areas are used, food service directors should stagger meal times to allow for social distancing; discontinue self-serve or buffet lines; and consider having students eat meals outside or in their classrooms. Recess should also be held in staggered shifts.
School districts also must adopt a policy for screening students and employees upon arrival for symptoms and history of exposure, the guidance states.
The guidance places a great importance on academic, social and behavioral supports for students and staff, and addresses funding and purchasing recommendations for districts.
The reopening guidance is for public schools, but Repollet said nonpublic schools also are encouraged to use the document to create reopening strategies.
Both the plan and Murphy acknowledged that for some students, including young children, those with special needs and those with health concerns, wearing a mask may not work.
The guidance was developed over the last month with input from stakeholders, including administrators, advocacy groups, parents and educators, and with the health and safety of the students, staff and community being the top priority, Murphy said.
He said it is also based on the evolving data and recommendations from the state Department of Health.
Some of the guidance also follows the Centers for Disease Control recommendations for schools and childcare centers released in May.
There are some items within the guidance noted as considerations that are not required, such as discouraging reading circles “because of their inherent inability to promote social distancing,” Murphy said.
He said the guidance gives schools the entire summer break to plan and prepare, and that districts anticipating scheduling changes should notify parents and caregivers at least one month before the start of school.
Murphy said that school districts also need to be prepared for another closing.
“We have to have at our ready a plan to flip a switch, to hit the emergency break. We have no choice,” he said. “We are still in the fight, we are still in the war. We’ve come a long long way in New Jersey, but we had to go through hell to get here.”
Newly appointed Millville Superintendent Tony Trongone said the district has been working on its plan for the last three weeks. After listening to Murphy on Friday, Trongone said the majority of the reopening logistics for his 6,000-student district have been worked out, but there are still some unknowns.
“We’re at least 65% of the way there,” he said. “We have to be cognizant of the need for younger kids to be in school, parents need to go to work. The plan for preschool to (grade) five is going to look differently than 6-12.”
Some of the unknowns include transportation or what to do if a student arrives ill.
One concern Trongone noted is the financial impact of the changes and relying on the federal CARES Act to pay for the increased costs.
“What happens in the following year? I don’t think this is going to go away. School is going to look much different than it looked on March 16, 2020, moving forward,” Trongone said.
Repollet said that in the coming days, the Department of Education will begin engaging with local districts to answer questions and aid in planning.