The guidelines Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday for reopening New Jersey’s public schools came with three overarching comments:
- “We have every expectation that our kids will return to their schools come September.”
- “There is no one-size-fits-all approach we can take.”
- “Districts must be prepared for the possibility that public health could require another switch to all-remote learning at any time.”
Murphy, along with Lamont Repollet, the commissioner of education in the state, said all of the standards for COVID-19 precautions are present in the guidance, including forced social distancing, physical barriers as needed and the wearing of face coverings.
More importantly, both Murphy and Repollet stressed that individual districts will have a lot of flexibility to design plans that work for each district.
Repollet said the state’s guidance focuses on four key functional areas: conditions for learning, leadership and planning, policy and funding, and continuity of learning.
The guidance describes several health and safety standards to be prioritized in school reopening, including:
- Social distancing: Schools and districts must allow for social distancing within the classroom. This can be achieved by ensuring students are seated at least 6 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. It is necessary to 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 6 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 mealtimes 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 between groups.
- Recess: This should also 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 buses: Operators should encourage social distancing. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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.
Murphy said the state is releasing guidance now so districts can have the entirety of the summer break to plan and prepare.
“These restart plans will be done collaboratively at the local level with parents, students, staff and local associations, and district leaders working together,” Murphy said.
“Nothing should be left to the last minute, and no one should receive an answer of ‘We’re unsure’ or ‘We weren’t aware’ to their questions.”
Murphy said he expect that districts will share their preliminary scheduling plans — especially as they pertain to any changes in school schedules — at least one month before the first day of school, so families can have the time they need to plan ahead, where necessary, but also to have confidence that every measure for protecting educational communities is being taken.
Murphy said the state guidance relies upon the most up-to-date data and recommendations from the Department of Health and was informed by input from school communities.
Murphy said the state has been in regular contact with educators and stakeholders, and has conducted daily site visits, weekly stakeholder meetings and discussions with a standing committee of nearly two dozen superintendents. Beyond this ongoing engagement, Murphy said the Department of Education has convened approximately 50 education and community organizations, met with over 300 superintendents and surveyed nearly 300,000 parents/guardians to inform the development of the reopening plan.