Gov. Phil Murphy says New Jersey schools should allow for families to opt into all remote learning amid the novel coronavirus this fall.
The full-time virtual learning option is included in new guidance the New Jersey Department of Education released Friday.
"Our top priority is keeping students, their families and educators safe," Murphy said. "To do that, flexibility, local decision making, and empowering parents and educators are all critical."
About one month ago, Murphy and then education commissioner Lamont Repollet laid out plans for a careful in-person school experience in the fall.
Murphy said that four principles guide that reopening plan: Ensuring a conducive learning atmosphere, supporting educational leaders, providing policy guidance and necessary funding to schools and securing continuity of learning.
After that announcement, parents and school leaders reached out with safety concerns, state leaders said. Districts also asked for further guidance.
On Friday, Murphy said that parents and guardians would be allowed to opt-out of in-person education and choose all-remote learning for their children when schools reopen.
"With today’s (department of education) guidance, we’re providing districts with even greater flexibility to ensure that they can meet this need," Murphy said.
Murphy is leaving it open to schools and districts about how the school year will look amid COVID-19.
"We’re not mandating any one specific way to move forward," the first-term Democrat said.
Education Department Interim Commissioner Kevin Dehmer, Murphy and others said they will continue to be responsive to feedback from students, parents and educators.
With the start of the school year still six weeks away, officials left open the flexibility for the plan to change as more coronavirus data is learned.
"We will continue to assess the realities of this virus on-the-ground, and how they may impact schools’ plans broadly," Murphy said. "We will make changes in real time if needed."
Murphy said, no matter what, the school year just won't be "normal."
Last week, Murphy announced a mutlimillion-dollar plan to close the digital divide in the state. He said that without that plan, remote learning wouldn't have been possible for every student who may request it this school year.
As of Friday, more than 178,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in New Jersey since the start of the outbreak. At least 13,845 people had died from coronavirus-related complications, with 36 new deaths added Friday. Another nearly 2,000 death are suspected to be related to COVID-19.
As of July 20, the spot positivity was under 3% and the rate of transmission was at 0.84.
"The lower both numbers get, the slower the spread," Murphy said.
More than 1,000 contact tracers are working around the Garden State to try and stop any outbreaks, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said. She urged anyone who gets a call to answer it an "break the chain of transmission."
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness or death.