Some New Jersey school districts may switch to all-virtual instruction this fall if they cannot teach in-person safely, state officials said Wednesday.
Districts opting for in-person instruction must certify that they are following state reopening guidelines to limit the spread of the coronavirus in schools.
Districts that cannot safely have in-person teaching must hold all-virtual instruction, and submit a plan to the state that gives a timeline for when in-person instruction will resume.
"We recognize that for some districts, there are legitimate and documentable reasons why some of these core health and safety standards cannot be met on day 1," Gov. Phil Murphy said.
He announced the schools news at a press conference about the coronavirus in New Jersey.
More time for planning
Neely Hackett, the superintendent for Willingboro (Burlington County) public schools, said the district will start all virtual for the first marking period because it cannot safely accommodate in-person learning.
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At the press conference she said her district needs more time to revamp its ventilation system and air conditioning, and accumulate enough personal protective equipment. Plans to add barriers to classrooms, and supply students and staff with 2 face masks a month, were both stalled by supply chain delays.
Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer said the vast majority of schools plan for some in-person instruction this fall. But the state wants to be flexible for districts that can't do so yet, Murphy said.
Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said the state will look at schools reopening by region, naming six.
Each region covers a few counties. The southwest group covers Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties, and the southeast region covers Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties.
The county regions will have risk assessments each week that show a more localized level of virus risk, Persichilli said. The assessments will review the number of cases from the past week, the percent of positive tests and results of syndromic surveillance. The regions will then be assigned risk levels of green, yellow, orange and red. Whether schools stay open depends on the risk level in the local region.
The department will release more detailed guidance this week explaining more.
Lead-up to now
Previously, New Jersey schools were required to keep in-person instruction an option, but parents had the choice to enroll their child into an all-virtual program.
Unions for teachers and other educators have said reopening in-person will put staff at risk for contracting the coronavirus. Health and safety concerns led to more than 400 teachers opting out of in-person instruction in the Elizabeth School District in North Jersey; the district later said it had to start the school year virtually due to a shortage of willing in-person staff.
Wednesday's announcement could lead to some districts changing their plans. We will update NBC10's map of reopening plans for our region's school districts as we learn more.