State releases rules for schools to welcome back students in September

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New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy COURTESY OF THE GOVERNOR'S OFFICE

TRENTON — School bells will be ringing across the state in September, if all goes well, but the logistics for learning will be significantly altered by social distancing mandates.

The New Jersey Department of Education [NJDOE] on Friday released its long-awaited guidance on the reopening of schools for the 2020-2021 school year, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“Absent a shift in the public health data, school buildings will open in some capacity for in-person instruction and operations in the fall,” NJDOE Commissioner Lamont Repollet said during Gov. Phil Murphy’s daily news briefing. 

But, the governor said, “There is no one-size-fits-all approach we can take,” and so school districts will have flexibility to develop their own plans that meet the basic health and safety rules set forth by the state.

“Each district will be expected to develop, in collaboration with community stakeholders, a plan to reopen schools in the fall that best fits the district’s local needs,” Mr. Repollet said. “I understand this will be no easy feat.” 

If coronavirus infection rates rise, schools may need to revert back to all-remote learning at any time during the school year, he cautioned.

Six-foot social distancing requirements for classrooms may mean changes in scheduling and start times, with hybrid models that include a combination of in-person and remote instruction. For example, a district may adopt an A/B model with students divided into two teams that rotate coming to school or learning from home on alternate weeks.

School districts must adopt a policy for screening students and employees for symptoms of the virus upon arrival. 

All staff members and visitors will be required to wear face masks unless they can’t for health reasons. 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 their health. 

Students’ desks must be six feet apart, and otherwise schools should consider having all desks face the same direction with barriers between them. Windows should be open for air circulation when weather permits.

Early childhood students should be kept apart during naptime, and close-group activities like reading circles should be avoided.

Cafeteria directors must stagger lunchtimes, discontinue self-serve and consider having students eat meals outdoors or in their classrooms.

Recess and gym classes will be allowed, with limited sizes and separation of students. The playground equipment also must be sanitized between uses. School districts should consider closing locker rooms and having students wear comfortable clothing and appropriate shoes so they don’t have to change for physical education.

Buses should maintain social distancing by skipping rows of seats or installing barriers, and be disinfected regularly.

To help ease the financial burden, school districts may apply for funding through the federal CARES Act or the Federal Emergency Management Agency Public Assistance program. 

The 104-page state plan, called The Road Back: Restart & Recovery Plan for Education, can be found at nj.gov/education/reopening.

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