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State education commissioner Lamont O. Repollet at today’s debriefing when Gov. Phil Murphy made the announcement that schools would remain closed.
COURTESY KEVIN SANDERS

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Citing the need to protect the health of New Jersey’s 1.6 million public and private school students as well as thousands of educators and support staff, the statewide school closures will be extended through the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday, May 4. With roughly five weeks left in the public school calendar, New Jersey becomes the 46th state to close schools for the remainder of the year.

Private schools with longer academic years will remain closed until at least June 30, Murphy said. 

Daycares will also remain closed, with the exception of those set up to accommodate the children of essential workers.

In making this decision, officials cited the need for more information on social distancing, intergenerational concerns as children could be carriers but asymptomatic, and the continued “long list of unknowns” with the virus. 

Public schools will continue to provide remote learning for students to allow districts to meet the state-required minimum of 180 instruction days. Schools’ spring sports seasons will not be played at the advice of the NJSIAA, the state’s governing body for high school sports, Murphy said.

“This is a difficult decision and I know that many students, parents, and staff would like to be able to return to school,” said Murphy. “However, I have been unwavering on the message that we need to make decisions based on science, not emotion. And while New Jersey is making great strides in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, science tells us that at this point, we can’t safely reopen our schools.”

The Department of Education will work with school officials to share ideas on safe and “innovative ways” to recognize 2020 high school graduates and other end-of-year milestones for students, said Murphy. 

In Montclair, interim Superintendent Nathan Parker said that district officials had assumed schools would be closed for the balance of the year, and therefore had planned for it.  

“We have already distributed over 400 Chromebooks and about 70 [wi-fi] hot spots to families in Montclair. And some multiple Chromebooks to certain families,” said Parker about accommodating students for the continuation of virtual learning.

While some schools have gone to a pass/fail system, Parker said Montclair will continue with a grade system coupled with some accommodations, at the middle and high school level. 

The state’s education administration will create a steering committee consisting of a group of stakeholders in the education community to explore summer learning opportunities for all students, including school-sponsored summer programming, and an extended school year for students with disabilities. 

Parker said Montclair has not specified any summer enrichment programs – however, the district will now provide extra assistance for those students who are struggling.  

The state committee will provide recommendations to the administration as to which services need to continue to be provided remotely, should the public health emergency extend past the conclusion of the 2019-2020 school year. The committee will also explore approaches for the safest and most efficient reopening of schools for the 2020-2021 school year. 

Murphy said, however, that the school day will differ from what students experienced prior to the outbreak.

State education commissioner Lamont O. Repollet said that he was “in awe” of teachers, parents and students for their ability to adapt to the closing of schools and the move to on-line learning.

“The most compelling factor guiding today’s decision is the health of New Jersey’s students and educators, and their families,” said Repollet.

TODAY’S NUMBERS

Murphy reported 1,621 new COVID-19 positive cases, bringing the total to 128,269, and 45 deaths, upping the state’s total to 7,910. Numbers released however could be lower due to a state network outage experienced yesterday. 

In contrast, the number of COVID-19 cases reported on Sunday was 3,027, and 2,651 on Saturday; and the number of deaths reported on Sunday was 119, and 205 on Saturday.

Hospitalizations are also on a steady decline, said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. As of last night, 5,287 people were in the hospital due to COVID-19, with 74 percent on ventilators. Two weeks ago 97 percent of the hospitalized patients were on ventilators, she said.

In addition, 335 patients were discharged yesterday. 

Today, Montclair officials reported the confirmed number of COVID-19 cases in Montclair increased from yesterday’s count of 374 to 381; the number of individuals who did not survive the illness remained at 44.

Essex County is now seeing a doubling rate of cases at more than 30 days. Essex County officials reported 78 new cases today, now totaling 14,732. Deaths reported by six, now totaling 1,288.

Of the 248,319 total test results throughout New Jersey thus far, the positivity rate is now down to about 40 percent.

Murphy said that the reopening of the parks over the weekend was successful with most people practicing social distancing. He did advise however that more people should be wearing masks.

SEEKING MORE FUNDING

Murphy said the state plans to tap into federal funds that will help schools improve continuity of learning, assist with sanitizing and deep cleaning of school buildings, and address the emotional needs of students.

New Jersey recently applied for $310 million in federal funding through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Districts will have local discretion in use of these funds; the CARES Act lists a number of allowable uses, including:

  • Purchase of educational technology, including hardware, software and connectivity;
  • Purchase of sanitization and cleaning supplies;
  • Mental health supports;
  • Plan and implement activities related to summer learning and supplemental after-school programs, including providing online learning during the summer months to address the needs of student subgroups;
  • Planning and coordinating the distribution of meals to eligible students;
  • Provide principals and other school leaders with the resources necessary to address the needs of their individual schools; and
  • Activities to address the unique needs of student subgroups.