New Jersey public school students will receive in-person instruction at least part-time come fall, the state education department said in guidance issued to districts Friday.
School systems will have wide latitude in exactly what school looks like in the fall, but must meet minimum guidelines, including social distancing, temperature checks, contact tracing, mandatory face coverings for school staff and visitors, with masks strongly encouraged for students amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
While educators did strong work shifting from in-person to remote instruction once Gov. Phil Murphy ordered New Jersey schools closed March 18 as the coronavirus bore down on the region, students need to return to classrooms in whatever way possible, Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet said.
“Too many parents feel that remote-only instruction isn’t working for their child, and too many children are falling behind,” said Repollet. “It is becoming abundantly clear that children need to return to a school environment in some capacity, and we need to do so safely. This is a matter of educational growth, and it’s a matter of equity.”
Plans, which must be announced no less than four weeks prior to the start of the school year, will be developed locally, in collaboration with the community, officials said. That’s likely to mean that some districts might opt for students attending school on alternating days and others on alternating weeks. Others may use space creatively to bring some groups of students into buildings daily.
“Scheduling needs will be based on local needs,” Repollet said at a news conference in Trenton.
Students and adults who exhibit symptoms will be told to self-isolate. If they test positive, schools will notify local health officials, staff and families.
Repollet said he realized child care will be a challenge for many families accustomed to having children in full-time school, and urged schools to work with child care providers to offer options for those parents who cannot shift schedules.
“The expectation is not to put undue burden and stress on our families,” Repollet said.
Students should be seated six feet apart in classrooms, the state guidance says. If that’s not possible, physical barriers between desks can be used, or desks can be arranged in a way that spaces students as far apart as possible. When possible, windows should be open to promote maximum air circulation.
All adults inside schools must wear masks or other face coverings, “unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health,” students over the age of 2 will be encouraged to wear masks, and if social distancing cannot be achieved, must wear masks. Officials acknowledged that for young children and those with disabilities, enforcement will be difficult.
State officials said cafeteria personnel should consider staggering meal times, cutting self-service and buffet lines, and having children eat meals in classrooms. Recess will likely be held in staggered shifts, with small groups. On buses, children will likely sit one student per row, with seats skipped between children; face masks will be required for those students able to wear them.
Districts must also establish cleaning and sanitization procedures for schools and buses. They will also be expected to make accommodations for tele-work and virtual learning for staff and students with health concerns.
Extracurricular and athletic activities are permitted under the guidance provided they comply with whatever executive orders are in place.
“Right now, I expect athletics to occur in the fall with school districts,” said the commissioner. “However, athletics will look different.”
The guidance also urges districts to work to ensure that every student has a device and internet connectivity available, though it does not mandate access.
State officials surveyed parents and gathered information from more than 300 of the state’s 600-plus superintendents to arrive at the guidance.
Lumberton School Superintendent Joe Langowski said his Burlington County district has formed a reopening committee to figure out the best way to prepare its three buildings that normally enroll about 1,100 students.
“This is a heavy lift,” Langowski said. “But I am sure we’ll put a great plan in place.”
Neither Langowski nor Joseph Meloche, superintendent of Cherry Hill schools, said they did not believe their schools could physically hold all students while adhering to social distancing guidelines; both anticipate a hybrid model, with some students physically in buildings and others learning remotely.
Meloche said he didn’t hear anything drastically different in the guidelines announced Friday. The district has been working on its reopening and plan to roll out a tentative plan at its July 14 school board meeting, he said.
"It definitely is going to be a new normal for September 2020," Meloche said. "What schools are going to look like is not going to be what they looked like on March 1."
Meloche said he was concerned about the social and impact social distancing may have on students, especially younger students accustomed to close-knit environments such as reading circles.
“School,” he said, “simply cannot solely be a sterile environment.”