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COURTESY STATE OF NEW JERSEY Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer speaks at a Wednesday, Aug. 12 press briefing in Trenton.

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

School districts will now be allowed to start the year with all-remote learning if they can not provide the health and safety standards set by the Department of Health for in-person learning Gov. Phil Murphy announced on Wednesday, Aug. 12. 

Those districts must, however, present documentation to the DOE, and demonstrate that they are working toward the goal of eventually reopening for in-person instruction, said Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer.

“Not only will this not be a normal school year, there is no one-size-fits-all plan to this very difficult situation,” Murphy said.

Pre-K-12 schools, colleges and universities may reopen for in-person instruction in September, but only if they meet certain health standards.

The state’s department of Health and the Department of Education have been collaborating on the school reopening planning. A statewide regional surveillance system is being established to keep track of virus spreads in different regions of the state. The system is color-coded from green, yellow, orange and red, based on severity of virus spread and positivity rate of tests for that region. Essex County will be in the system’s northeast region, along with Bergen and Hudson counties, said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. 

The New Jersey Education Association and other groups have called for school districts to be allowed to begin the year with all-remote learning, saying that reopening schools for in-person instruction in September would put staff and students at risk. On Tuesday, the NJEA released a statement calling on Murphy and state education officials to have all school districts begin the year remotely, due to a shortage of teachers and concerns about health and safety. 

The Essex County Education Association released a statement calling for a delay to in-person instruction. The statement was signed by education association representatives from across Essex County, including Montclair. 

Montclair school officials said last month that the plan is for schools to reopen on a hybrid model, with two cohorts of students alternating between in-person instruction and online instruction. Students will attend school in-person for four hours a day, two days a week. 

Superintendent Jonathan Ponds did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Two school superintendents – Willingboro Superintendent Neely Hackett and East Brunswick Superintendent Victor Valeski – were present at Wednesday’s briefing to discuss how their respective districts planned to reopen. 

Valeski said that East Brunswick sent out a survey of families asking for their preferences. Seventy percent of the responding parents said they wanted a hybrid option, he said, and the schools will reopen on that model. The school day will be a four-hour day. Students will be divided into two cohorts at the elementary level, and four cohorts at the middle and high school level. Elementary school students in East Brunswick will alternate between two days a week and three days a week; during one week, the first group will be in class for three of the days and the second group will be in for two days. The following week, the second group will be in class for three days and the first group will be in two. For secondary school students, each cohort will take turns attending in two-day blocks, with the schedule repeating every two weeks. Because of the way the schedule is set up, only three of the four cohorts at a time will be in class in a given week . Teachers will go to the classrooms, instead of students physically moving from classroom to classroom for different classes. School cafeterias will also be closed off for lunch. 

Additionally, all East Brunswick students will participate in virtual learning to some extent during the week. 

The Willingboro schools, however, will be entirely remote for the first few months of the school year. Hackett said that the Willingboro schools will conduct the first marking period, from Sept. 8 to Nov. 18, remotely, since district officials need more time to get the schools ready for in-person learning. 

One concern is insufficient ventilation in the school buildings, especially when temperatures in September are still quite warm. 

Today’s numbers

On Wednesday, Aug. 12, state health officials reported 484 new cases, up from 444 the day before, bringing the total to 185,938. The virus transmission rate now stands at 0.92, down from 0.98. The state has also reported nine new deaths, compared to 11 on Tuesday, bringing the total to 14,046. The number of probable deaths now stands at 1,839.

Hospitals reported 592 patients, including 111 critical care patients and 35 ventilators in use, compared to 545 patients, 83 critical care patients and 29 ventilators on Aug. 10.

Essex County health officials reported 16 news cases now totaling 19,786. The number of deaths was revised downward from 1,867 to 1,864. 

Montclair health officials continued to report that the number of cases and deaths continue to remain at 484 and 54, respectively. 

Officials also reported no new cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, and the number of cases remains at 54.