August 12, 2020
New Jersey school districts will be permitted to begin the upcoming academic year with online-only instruction if they cannot abide by the state's COVID-19 safety protocols.
The option, announced Wednesday, marks a major reversal in the state's plans for the 2020-21 school year. For weeks, Gov. Phil Murphy has been pushing districts to include at least some in-person instruction when classes return.
Districts wishing to begin with all-remote learning must provide the Department of Education with an anticipated date for resuming in-person learning, Murphy said. They also must submit plans for meeting health guidelines necessary for bringing students back to school.
"Our goal has not changed. Our commitment to meeting the conditions on the ground with flexibility has not changed," Murphy said. "Our focus on protecting students, families and educators has not changed."
The decision to provide school districts with more flexibility came after listening to parents, teachers and other stakeholders over the past several weeks, Murphy said. He added that it was made "to ensure the safety of all students and staff come the beginning of the school year."
"When our schools open in September, they must be ready to safely provide the high-quality education to all students that is a hallmark of New Jersey," Murphy said. "We know the first day of school is not going to be like any other in our history. We’re fully committed to getting this right."
Murphy signed an executive order formally clearing the way for all schools, including colleges and universities, to reopen this fall.
Institutions of higher education can resume in-person learning as long as COVID-19 health and safety protocols, such as social distancing, can be met, Murphy said. Any student who opts for remote learning must be accommodated.
School districts had been encouraged to adopt a hybrid education model of in-person and remote learning. Murphy had stressed that online learning should be considered a complementary tool to in-person instruction. But that plan had drawn substantial criticism from people worried about its health implications.
The New Jersey Education Association, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, and the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association issued a joint statement Tuesday calling on Murphy and the state Department of Education to mandate all-remote learning this fall.
"For months, New Jersey educators and administrators have been working tirelessly to find a way to safely bring students back into school buildings in September," the statement said. "Now, with less than a month remaining before schools are scheduled to reopen, it is time to reluctantly acknowledge that goal is simply not achievable.
"Reopening schools for in-person instruction under the current conditions poses too great a risk to the health of students and schools staff."
Late last month, a group of Democratic state lawmakers introduced legislation that sought to keep all students at home through October.
Murphy previously said that the state was trying to provide the best education while ensuring equity for families who depend upon in-person instruction – all while keeping students, educators and families safe from COVID-19.
The state is allowing parents and students to opt for all-remote instruction if they choose.
Students receiving in-person instruction will be mandated to wear a face covering at all times while inside schools – regardless of social distancing. Students with certain disabilities or a personal health issue are exempt from the requirement.
The state's initial policy just required school staff and visitors to wear face coverings at all times. Students only were required to wear them when social distancing wasn't possible at school or on buses.
All New Jersey schools suspended in-person instruction at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March and resorted to online-only learning for the remainder of the academic year.