TRENTON, New Jersey (WPVI) -- New Jersey's schools will be open for in-person instruction in the fall, as long as COVID-19 trends don't worsen, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday.
Murphy, a Democrat, unveiled his administration's guidelines for restarting in-person education during his daily news briefing.
The 104-page guidance document lays out a number of requirements, but during a briefing with reporters, Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet stressed that districts will have flexibility to tailor the reopening to fit their needs.
"I understand that this will be no easy feat," Repollet said. "Our guide will begin to fill in the picture of what a safe education system will look like in the fall."
The guidelines require in-person instruction, Repollet said. That means districts could not opt for only-online learning, if they wanted. However, the number of days schools require students to report in person, and whether they also use online learning, is up to the districts.
The following guidance, released by the governor's office, 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 two 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 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 between groups.
-Recess: 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 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.
The guidance also addresses school bus and cafeteria protocols, along with sports, though many details will have to be worked out in each district.
Pennsauken School District officials say they have been thinking about the fall for a while, and say they'll adopt an A-B schedule.
"So the A-B split is where half the students can come on A days, half the students on B days. It splits the students in half and it allows them to come every other day," said Pennsauken Superintendent Dr. Ronnie Tarchichi.
They've also upgraded cleaning supplies and purchased masks and face shields for students, preparing for them to return.
On transportation, the Murphy administration recommends keeping social distance on buses where possible, but acknowledges that if it's not, then students must wear face coverings. Repollet also recommended opening the bus' windows if practical.
Buffet-style cafeteria service won't be allowed under the plan, and districts will have to adopt a grab-and-go approach, as well as eating in classrooms, Repollet said.
On athletics, the guidance refers to pending guidelines from the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Districts will have to come up with a plan for increased cleaning and disinfecting, especially for frequently touched surfaces, according to the plan.
Murphy said Friday he was prepared to re-shutter schools if health conditions warranted.
New Jersey's schools shuttered in March when the outbreak first struck in the state, with districts shifting to online learning. Friday's guidelines say state officials anticipate students likely made less than a full year's worth of progress this academic year because of the COVID-19 closure and calls on districts to prioritize returning students who are most in need of in-person instruction.
"We must take into account the many geographic, demographic and economic differences which exist among our schools and education communities," said Murphy.
That could include students with disabilities, English language learners, homeless children, and low-income students, the document says.
School districts should announce their reopening plans four weeks before the start of school, according to the guidance.
There were 524 new cases reported overnight, putting the total at 170,500, Murphy said. There were 44 more deaths reported overnight, pushing the death toll to 13,060, plus 1,854 probable COVID-19 deaths, the governor said.
While other states are seeing an uptick in cases, Murphy said hospitalization rates and the rate of spread of the virus in New Jersey are down compared with Thursday. The rate of positive test results also fell from nearly 4% Thursday to about 2%, Murphy reported Friday.