When New Jersey schools reopen this fall, they will do so under a set of COVID-19 mitigation strategies impacting almost every activity in the school day – from riding the bus to eating lunch to sitting in class.
The New Jersey Department of Education released an extensive report (which is embedded at the end of this article) detailing the minimum and recommended guidelines for reopening. Students and staff will be subjected to an array of requirements including face mask mandates, social distancing protocols and symptom screenings.
Districts are to use the 104-page guidance, dubbed "The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education," to develop their own reopening plans. All schools are expected to resume some in-person instruction, though schools can develop a hybrid model that includes some virtual learning.
State officials outlined the health and safety requirements during a press briefing Friday.
"We have every expectation that our kids will return to their schools come September," Gov. Phil Murphy said. "We’re releasing this school reopening guidance today so districts can have the entirety of the summer break to plan and prepare."
The following requirements must be met by all districts:
- A policy to screen students and employees for COVID-19 symptoms and exposure history must be established.
- Social distancing measures must be enforced in classrooms and school buses. Physical barriers or other modifications should be installed if the six-foot requirement cannot be met.
- Cleaning and disinfecting procedures – beyond a school's typical routine – must be established.
- Staff and visitors must wear face coverings. Students are strongly encouraged to wear masks, but only required to do so when they can't maintain proper social distance. Visiting children under age two are not required to wear a covering.
In addition to these minimum requirements, the Department of Education outlined 10 "critical areas of operation" for schools to address COVID-19 mitigation efforts:
- General Health and Safety Guidelines: Districts must comply with guidelines provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and should provide reasonable accommodations to protect students and staff at higher-risk for severe coronavirus complications.
- Classrooms, Testing, and Therapy Rooms: Schools should limit the use of shared objects, ensure proper ventilation, install hand-sanitizing stations and encourage frequent hand-washing.
- Transportation: Districts should maintain social distancing measures on buses as much as possible and adopt best practices for cleaning and sanitation. Students must wear face coverings when social distancing measures are not possible.
- Student Flow, Entry, Exit and Common Areas: Schools should establish a process for screening and include physical guides on floors, walls and sidewalks to help people stay six feet apart.
- Screening, PPE and Response to Students and Staff Presenting Symptoms: Students and staff with COVID-19 symptoms must be "safely and respectfully" isolated. If a person who has spent time in a district facility tests positive for the coronavirus, officials must immediately notify health officials, staff and families.
- Contact Tracing: Staff should be briefed on the way contact tracing will be used to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Schools should collaborate with their local health departments to employ the strategy.
- Facilities Cleaning Practices: Districts must develop a schedule increasing their regular cleaning and disinfecting routines. Highly-touched surfaces and bathrooms should be sanitized at least daily and between use as much as possible.
- Meals: Family-style, self-service and buffet-style dining must be eliminated. Lunch times should be staggered to prevent overcrowding in the cafeteria. Cooking staff must wash their hands immediately after removing gloves or directly touching used food service items.
- Recess/Physical Education: Outdoor spaces should be marked off to ensure adequate spacing between students. Recess times should be staggered and equipment must be disinfected in between uses. Schools should consider shutting down locker rooms and encourage students to wear comfortable clothing instead.
- Extracurricular Activities and Use of Facilities Outside of School Hours: Extracurricular activities and outside groups must follow established health and safety protocol.
Social and emotional support programs should also be implemented to help students cope with changes caused by COVID-19, the guidance recommended. Increased child care and food distribution may help address these needs.
The guidance also includes additional planning measures to help the districts formulate their own reopening plans. They are organized under four categories: Conditions for Learning, Leadership and Planning, Policy and Funding, and Continuity of Learning. Most suggestions aim to help organize staff, balance budgets, provide student care, and help students and staff adjust to a changed school environment.
Education officials spent they spent weeks creating the guidance, Murphy said. They spoke to "roughly 50 education and community organizations, more than 300 superintendents and surveyed nearly 300,000 parents and guardians."
New Jersey Schools COVID-19 Reopening Plan by PhillyVoice.com on Scribd