While many school districts across the state opted to go back to virtual learning when students returned from the holiday break — including seven of the largest in the state — Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday he has no intention of mandating a return to remote learning.
In fact, the governor, said he hopes all students can remain in — or quickly return to — the classroom.
“Let me be clear: We currently have no intention or plan to shut our schools,” he said. “We have no desire to return to remote learning, which is suboptimal in terms of learning and instruction.
“Certainly, individual schools and districts may make their own decisions after consulting with their local health departments, and some are starting the second half of the school year in remote fashion, but we will do everything we can to keep our kids in school, where not only we know they will have a more appropriate educational experience, but where the data actually shows us they can be safe.”
Districts in Camden, Elizabeth, Jersey City, New Brunswick, Newark, Paterson and Trenton — as well as other smaller districts — are returning to virtual instruction.
Murphy said he’s hopeful districts with in-person learning can remain that way — although he admits it will come with challenges.
“We know that these schools are also going to be dealing with a lot of absences of both students and staff who have contracted Omicron during this tidal wave of new infections,” he said.
Murphy said the data indicated that there have been 373 outbreaks since school resumed in the fall, but he said that total is lower than expected.
“The number of outbreaks directly traced to in-school activities have remained below where we would have anticipated given the speed and upward trajectory of Omicron,” he said. “This speaks directly to the importance of the layered approach to student and staff safety we have had in place in our schools since they opened in August and September — especially to the importance of proper masking.”
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Of course, these numbers came from before students left for holiday break, when cases and transmission of the Omicron variant were much smaller.
“This Omicron tsunami has changed the game yet again,” he said. “We cannot summarily give up the fight. We need to remain on a war footing to ensure that we can get resources to where they need to be, when they need to be there.
“And, yes, this means that we anticipate our kids having to wear masks in their schools for now, in order to protect their health and safety and ensure that they can continue in-person learning. No one wants to see our kids’ smiles more than we do, but this is what is necessary now to keep our schools safe.”
Murphy said the Department of Health has given schools guidance regarding the “Test to Stay” option, which keeps students in classes.
Under test to stay, a student who was determined to be a close contact of another student who has tested positive can remain in school if they test negative.
“Test to stay is an additional level of protection to keep our schools open and our kids learning in their classrooms,” Murphy said. “But, the bottom line remains that nothing is a vital as vaccination and, especially for teens who have been eligible for a while, boosters.”