BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
If the spread of COVID-19 stays contained, New Jersey public schools will open for in-person instruction in some capacity at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.
Gov. Phil Murphy and Department of Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet announced today, June 26, the release of “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education” as a guide to reopening the schools in the fall.
The document gives minimum standards for schools to create individualized plans that will protect the health and safety of students and staff, but mandates that social distancing be practiced in classrooms and that face coverings be worn by students and staff when social distancing is impossible, such as in hallways. The guidance also gives suggestions such as implementing staggered schedules and hybrid learning, in which students receive both in-person and remote instruction.
Each district will be expected to develop, in collaboration with community stakeholders, a plan to reopen schools in the fall that best fits the district’s needs. The plan must be made available to the public at least one month before opening day, Repollet said.
Murphy said, “The return to school will pose challenges, but we are confident that New Jersey’s school districts can move forward in a way that best serves the needs of their district while also achieving a safe environment for students and staff.”
The guidance was compiled by a committee of nearly two dozen superintendents and 50 education and community organizations. Over 300 superintendents and 300,000 parents/guardians had input as well.
“New Jersey educators and families did an amazing job over the past three months implementing remote learning, even with relatively little time for planning. That effort was nothing short of heroic,” Repollet said. “However, too many parents feel that remote-only instruction isn’t working for their child, and too many children are falling behind. 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.”
The guidance describes several health and safety standards to be prioritized in school reopening:
- Social distancing: Schools and districts must allow for social distancing within the classroom. This can be achieved by ensuring students are seated at least six feet apart. If schools are not able to maintain this physical distance, additional modifications should be considered. These include physical barriers between desks and turning desks to face the same direction (rather than facing each other) or having students sit on only one side of a table and spaced apart.
- Face coverings: School staff and visitors are required to wear face coverings unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health or the individual is under 2 years of age. Students are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings and are required to do so when social distancing cannot be maintained, unless doing so would inhibit the student’s health. Officials acknowledge that enforcing the use of face coverings may be impractical for young children or certain individuals with disabilities.
- Limited capacity: It is recommended that students and staff be seated at least six feet apart in class when practicable. When weather allows, windows should be opened to allow for greater air circulation.
- Cleaning/disinfecting: Procedures must be implemented by each school district for the sanitization of school buildings and school buses. Increased handwashing measures are also important for students and staff.
Other provisions in the guidance include:
- Cafeteria directors should consider staggering meal times to allow for social distancing; discontinuing self-serve or buffet lines; having students eat meals outside or in their classrooms; and requiring staff to disinfect eating areas after each group uses them.
- Recess should be held in staggered shifts, with efforts to promote social distancing and hygiene protocols.
- Cohorting: Schools may wish to identify small groups of students and keep them together (cohorting) to ensure that student and staff groupings are as static as possible, thereby limiting exposure to large groups of students.
- School bus operators should encourage social distancing. CDC guidelines recommend seating on a school bus such that there is one student seated per row, skipping a row between each child, if possible. Barriers separating rows of bus seats may also be considered. If social distancing is not feasible, face coverings must be worn by students who are able to do so. Increased ventilation (i.e., opening windows) is also recommended in the guidelines.
“I understand this will be no easy feat,” Repollet said of the return to school.
Districts can delay openings as long as they comply with providing 180 days of learning as required by the state, said Repollet.
Because staying open will depend upon health data, districts will need to be prepared to pivot to remote instruction at any time during the 2020-2021 school year.
Each school district should be working to ensure that every student has a device and internet connectivity available. The guidance identifies funding streams available to school districts to ensure students have access to technology.
Murphy ordered all New Jersey schools to close on March 18, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. School districts provided remote instruction and free lunches to those in need.
Montclair’s interim superintendent, Nathan Parker, did not respond to and email asking for information on the district’s plans for the upcoming school year.
Health officials reported 524 new cases today, June 26, up from the 406 reported on Thursday, bringing the state total to 170,584 cases.
Officials also reported 44 new confirmed deaths related to COVID-19, up from the 26 new deaths reported yesterday. The death toll of 13,060 does not include 1,854 individuals not tested but now being considered as COVID-19-related deaths.
Last night, fewer patients were in the hospital with COVID (1,118) compared to Wednesday, when 1,182 patients were hospitalized. Of the patients in the hospital last night, 234 were in the ICU and 206 were on ventilators, compared to Wednesday, when 252 were in critical care and 210 ventilators were in use. Hospitals admitted 59 new patients and discharged 114 last night. On Wednesday, 56 new patients were admitted and 108 were sent home.
The positivity rate from tests taken on June 22 dropped to 2.1 percent from yesterday’s rate of 3.65 percent. Today’s rate of transmission also dropped slightly, to 0.86, compared to yesterday’s rate of 0.88.
Essex County officials reported 17 new cases, down from the 45 reported yesterday and now totaling 18,659. Officials also reported three new deaths, down from the 15 reported yesterday. Essex County’s death toll is now 1,775.
On Friday, Montclair health officials reported that the number of cases increased by one to 442: the number of individuals who did not survive the illness remains at 51 deaths.
State health officials reported two additional cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, bringing the total to 47 cases.