Districts (if they can’t meet safety standards) can start school year with all-remote learning

Gov. Phil Murphy reiterated his desire for schools to reopen for the upcoming academic year — but issued an executive order Wednesday that said districts that can’t meet certain safety standards can start the school year with all-remote learning.

Simply put: Whether to start school in an all-remote fashion will be up to individual districts.

“Districts that cannot meet all the health and safety standards for safe in-person instruction will begin their school year in an all-remote fashion,” he said.

Murphy said public school districts that feel they cannot reopen with proper safety protocols will need to spell out their plans for satisfying these unmet standards, and a date by which they anticipate the ability to resume in-person instruction.

Murphy reiterated that any student who chooses to continue remote learning must be accommodated.

Murphy said the decision was the result of continual meetings and updates from school and health officials — and was rooted in the long-standing New Jersey tradition that school decisions are made at the local level.

He also said it shows just how unusual the upcoming school year will be.

“Let’s begin by recognizing a very simple truth — that there is no one-size-fits-all plan to this very difficult situation,” Murphy said. “As we have mentioned here before, we are home to nearly 600 public school districts, plus charter and renaissance schools, nonpublic and parochial schools, and other specialized places of learning. Each one faces its own unique challenges, serves a unique community, and has its own unique character.

“And, in fact, we don’t just recognize these differences in New Jersey, in many ways we celebrate them.

“The simple fact remains that New Jersey’s system of education has long been rooted in local control and decision-making based on local input. I would not ask the students and parents in Willingboro to decide what’s best for East Brunswick’s schools, and vice versa.”

Murphy said the state has held numerous meetings over the past six weeks on the issue of school’s reopening.

“We have relied upon the work of local educational communities to determine the best way for their schools to reopen,” he said. “We have provided significant flexibility — including providing parents and guardians with the option to choose all-remote learning for their student — while also adjusting expectations based on the latest science and data, such as last week’s announcement of mandatory face coverings for all students while in school.

“But, at every twist and turn in the road, we have been willing to listen and accommodate, and today we are continuing to show our willingness to listen, to learn, and to act accordingly.

“This clear principle has guided us from the very start — we are flexible because we value listening. We are listening because we value flexibility. This is not a change, of course. This is a continuation of the process we’ve set up from the start.

“The Department of Education has put forward strong guidelines that put a premium on the health and safety of students and staff while allowing in-person instruction to resume. However, we recognize that for some districts, there are legitimate and documentable reasons why some of these core health and safety standards can’t be met on Day One.

“For these districts, today we are reaffirming our commitment to provide the flexibility for districts to do what is best for their school community.”

Murphy said the ultimate goal is to get students back into the classroom — but in a safe manner.

“Our goal has not changed,” he said. “Our commitment to meeting the conditions on the ground with flexibility has not changed. And, most of all, our focus on protecting students, families and educators has not changed.

“When our schools open in September, they must be ready to provide the high-quality education to all students that is a hallmark of New Jersey. We know the first day of school is not going to be like any other in our history.

“And, we are fully committed to getting this right for students, our educators, our districts, and every family that everyone who enters one of our schools goes safely home to at night.”