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‘This is not going to be a normal year,’ Murphy says in clarifying guidelines for reopening New Jersey schools

As New Jersey school districts try to figure out plans to reopen schools, Gov. Phil Murphy released new guidelines Friday for remote-online classes for parents unwilling to send their children back out of concern for their safety.

Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday he wants to make sure New Jersey schools open responsibly and wants all parents to have the option for remote learning for their children.
Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday he wants to make sure New Jersey schools open responsibly and wants all parents to have the option for remote learning for their children.Read moreJose F. Moreno / AP

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy delivered some good news Friday for parents, and a warning to school districts trying to come up with a plan to reopen in the fall, that additional changes could still come.

Murphy clarified his announcement last week about virtual instruction and said districts must offer every student the choice to learn remotely. Districts have the flexibility to figure out how to fold that option into their plans.

State officials released revised guidelines for districts after some parents said they were uncomfortable sending their children into school buildings.

“This is not going to be a normal school year,” Murphy said during a news conference. “This is really hard.”

But the revised guidelines were lacking in details and left many unanswered questions. Some districts, including Cherry Hill and Camden, are putting the final touches on proposals that will be presented next week.

”The real issue is not going to be the option for parents, but is the governor going to be willing to keep schools closed, as many still feel in-person instruction is unsafe?” asked Lawnside Superintendent Ronn Johnson. “We were always going to offer the option for parents to keep their children home and receive remote instruction.”

Murphy acknowledged that uncertainty clouds the opening of schools if coronavirus cases spike. He said the state would make changes “in real time if needed.”

With schools scheduled to open in about six weeks for New Jersey’s 1.3 million public school children, some have called for in-person learning only. Parents and teachers across the region, including in Philadelphia, have expressed concern about returning to classrooms, even with the social distancing and masks required.

In a letter Friday to lawmakers, the Essex County Education Association, one of the state’s largest teachers’ unions, said returning to school was unsafe and called for virtual instruction only.

“Simply put, despite the best of intentions and planning, the risk to the health and safety of our students and staff is too high,” wrote Anthony Rosamilia, president of the association representing 12,000 teachers.

» READ MORE: Philly schools’ initial reopening plans spell disaster | Opinion

New Jersey Education Association president Marie Blistan applauded Murphy for mandating remote instruction for any parent who wants the option. She has not called for online learning only.

”If schools reopen for in-person instruction this fall, many parents and educators face very difficult decisions about whether it is safe to return,” Blistan said in a statement Friday.

Murphy said allowing parents to choose the all-remote option will decrease density in classrooms and ensure safe distancing. He also said the state will be able to supply internet access and devices to every student in the state who selects online learning. Currently, about 230,000 students lack access, he said.

Under the guidelines, districts must meet an “anticipated minimum standard” for online instruction. Students who opt for online education must receive the same quality of education as those who attend classes in person.

All students are eligible for full-time remote learning, including special education students. Districts must establish their own procedures that include how students transition to in-person classes, said interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer.

Districts must submit their reopening plans to the state at least four weeks before the new school year begins. While some are weighing all online instruction for at least part of the year, others are considering hybrid models that include several days a week in school and virtual instruction for the remaining days. They must also make decisions on everything from bus routes to lunch plans.

”This remains a challenging time that tests our patience, flexibility, and ability to serve a variety of competing forces,” said Cinnaminson schools chief Stephen Cappello. He plans to release the district’s reopening plans in early August.

Cherry Hill Superintendent Joseph Meloche said the Camden County district would make slight adjustments to its preliminary plan to accommodate the remote-instruction option for all students. The district had planned to offer in-person learning only for ESL and those in special education self-contained classrooms.

”We are set up to make it happen,” Meloche said. The revised plan will be presented Tuesday.