In a reversal, Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday said the state’s public school districts can open with remote learning only, but must meet certain criteria and have a plan to eventually get their students back into classrooms.
Murphy has been under increasing pressure to order virtual instruction for the state’s nearly 600 school districts, but stopped short of that Wednesday. He left that decision to local school boards.
Murphy, who previously said he wanted schools to reopen for the school year with some in-person instruction, said he wanted to give districts more flexibility. Some have predicted shortages of teachers or protective equipment or inadequate ventilation to reopen.
”There is no one-size-fits-all plan to this very difficult situation,” Murphy said at a news conference in Trenton. “There are no two school districts alike.”
His announcement came as New Jersey reported 484 newly confirmed coronavirus cases and nine deaths on Wednesday. Murphy said the transmission rate is below 1, meaning every infected person is, on average, infecting fewer than one other person.
State police said authorities have continued to see unlawful and risky large gatherings in recent days, including a pool party in Gloucester Township that drew nearly 300 people and a North Jersey strip club packed with 300 to 400 people, many unmasked.
Pennsylvania reported 849 new cases and 33 deaths on Wednesday. The state’s moving seven-day average for new daily cases was 774, a slight uptick over recent days. Philadelphia reported 141 new cases of the virus.
Across the region, school districts have been struggling to develop plans to reopen schools shuttered by the pandemic. Some, including Philadelphia, have opted for online learning only for the start of the school year, while many are planning hybrid models that include in-person and virtual classes.
But the change in guidelines was welcomed by some parents and in districts like Willingboro that had already planned to reopen with all-virtual learning. It was unclear how many districts that had previously selected hybrid models would reconsider those plans.
Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs said she was “relieved“ by Murphy’s decision, which enabled her to reverse course from a hybrid. About one-third of the district’s teachers said they were not returning to the classroom and half of parents said they would not send their children back, she said.
“We will be starting the year 100% remote,” McCombs said. “At the end of the day, health and safety are paramount.”
But James Lavender, the superintendent of Kingsway Regional and South Harrison Township districts in Gloucester County, said Murphy’s announcement was like the equivalent of an ill-timed bomb thrown just before the start of the school year.
“It’s going to create almost civil war between teachers and parents, school leaders and communities,” Lavender said. “This is no good for school districts.”
Kingsway and South Harrison’s plan calls for most students to attend school two days a week and elementary grades to attend four days a week. But the governor’s edict will likely rile community members to now push for all-remote learning, he said.
Under the guidelines, in order to choose all-remote learning, districts must show that they are unable to open and meet health and safety standards. They must provide a date when in-person instruction would begin.
To address the digital divide among poor school districts, Murphy said school systems must show that every student has the necessary internet access and a device such as a Chromebook. New Jersey has estimated that more than 230,000 students lack them.
With cases rising, the looming school year caused angst among educators and parents, with districts changing plans as Trenton clarified requirements. Last week, Murphy announced that face masks would be required for students and teachers at all times during school.
”The uncertainty is really hard,” said Patricia Kipnis, of Cherry Hill, the mother of a seventh and ninth grader. “It feels like a depressing start of the school year if they’re going to start in their bedrooms.”
Cherry Hill modified its reopening plan, with students being taught three days from home and two half-days at school. . Murphy has said all districts must offer a remote-only option for parents who want it for health concerns.
Willingboro School Superintendent Neely Hackett said her Burlington County district needs more time to meet health standards, stockpile protective equipment, and upgrade ventilation systems. The district hopes to open schools on Nov. 19, she said.
At least 15 districts had already planned digital-only starts to the school year, according to the New Jersey Education Association. Other South Jersey districts with remote-only plans include Florence and Westampton.
”My child will be 100% virtual, regardless of what the governor does or doesn’t do,” said Hilari Luck, of West Deptford, whose son, Trent, 16, is a rising junior at the Gloucester County Institute of Technology. “I will not leave that decision in the hands of someone else.”
On Tuesday night, the state teachers’ and principals’ unions issued a statement calling for Murphy to mandate a remote start, saying that despite a summer of working toward some kind of in-person opening, conditions make that impossible.
“There is no question in my mind that all districts should start remotely,” said NJEA president Marie Blistan. “People’s lives are at risk.”