NJ Schools Expect to Reopen This Fall: 7 Things to Know
New Jersey plans to return K-12 students to physical classrooms as much as possible this September. Governor Phil Murphy, along with Education Commissioner Dr. Lamont Repollet, released a 104-page set of guidelines Friday, June 26, aimed at reopening New Jersey schools for 2020-20201 academic year.
“Absent a shift in public health data, school buildings will open in some capacity for in-person instruction and operations in September,” said Repollet. “The reopenings of our schools will include necessary limitations to protect the health of our students and staff.”
The guidelines insist on plenty of social distancing for schools, but also the option for a hybrid education model that would combine in-person instruction with remote-learning, or possibly students attending school on alternating days or weeks. All districts, however, must create a school reopening plan that includes some in-person instruction, the governor and commissioner said Friday. “There’s no one size fits all approach,” noted Murphy.
Murphy shuttered school buildings statewide on March 18, and NJ public school kids wrapped up their 2019-2020 academic year via remote learning this month. As the state has gotten infections from COVID-19 under control, it started reopening a number of its temporarily closed businesses and recreation spots but not schools. Summer camps in New Jersey are allowed to reopen July 6, while daycares reopened at reduced capacities in mid-June, giving working parents a bit of relief.
1. School Schedules and Remote Learning
New Jersey, like other states, is considering grouping kids into “cohorts,” meaning small groups of kids who stay together throughout the day, including at recess and lunch, and may also attend physical school on the same days. Options include sending each cohort, which could be an entire grade, or two grades, of students, to school on the same schedule, while other students are at home for remote learning. Alternating schedules are suggested assuming that many schools will need to reduce the number of students in a building at the same time in order to maintain recommended social distancing guidelines of 6 feet between students and staff at all times.
Additional suggestions include one-way hallways, outdoor class sessions when possible, staggering school day start and end times for each “cohort,” and reconfiguring all spaces and classes to maximize social distancing.
The school reopening guidelines point out that “Districts need to be prepared to pivot to remote instruction at any time during the 2020-2021 school year” in case the virus flares up again.
Rules will encourage 6 feet of distance between kids or face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Unsplash
2. Masks and Social Distancing Requirements
Masks will be required for teachers, school staff, and visitors, but not for students under the guidelines. 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 the student’s health.”
Six feet of distance is required throughout the school, which may require limited class sizes and reconfiguring desks or erecting physical barriers, the guidelines said. Social distancing rules will extend to bathrooms, recess, lunchtime, busses, and throughout the day. Sharing of various educational tools, toys, and books in the classroom is discouraged.
3. Health Screenings and Cleaning Protocols
Schools will be expected to screen all students and staff for any coronavirus symptoms upon arrival, and must adopt strict cleaning and disinfecting procedures, including paying attention to frequently touched surfaces and bathrooms, the guidelines said. Better air circulation, including open windows, is suggested, and building in more frequent handwashing breaks for students as well as placing hand sanitizer stations throughout the school are also recommended. Sneeze guards at reception desks might be warranted or other partitions.
4. Recess and Physical Education
Recess isn’t canceled, but the NJ school reopening guidelines recommend staggering student playtime even more. “If two or more groups are participating in recess at the same time, they should have at least 6 feet of open space between them.” Cones, flags, and tape might be used to create boundaries between groups of students at play. Limit or eliminate contact with sports equipment or disinfect frequently; consider closing locker rooms and instead encourage students to come to school ready for phys ed without the use of a locker room for changing, it said.
5. Bus Rules
Again, 6 feet of distance should be maintained between children by skipping rows if possible, seating kids from the same household together, or by adding additional barriers within the bus. Assigned seating, staggered pickup times are also suggested options where feasible. If social distancing cannot be maintained, children should wear masks while riding the bus.
6. The Cafeteria
The NJ school reopening guidelines say that if cafeterias remain open for meals, eating must be staggered further to maintain social distancing. Buffets, family-style, and self-service meals are out. Instead, individually plated meals or prepackaged meals should be served. Add more time to lunch and recess to ensure handwashing and cleaning time, too. Some districts might also consider serving meals in the classroom or outdoors, especially if the cafeteria will be used as new classroom space to ensure social distancing.
7. Extracurriculars, Sports, and Special Needs Education
In general, the guidelines call for “minimizing large groups gatherings,” and recommends canceling field trips and assemblies, and instead maximizing “technology and online resources” to continue extracurriculars. NJ high school student athletes are slowly returning to the field with new restrictions in place and the governor did approve the reopening of outdoor non-contact sports on June 22.
Guidelines for special needs education were vague except to state that: “Districts must continue to meet their obligations to students with disabilities to the greatest extent possible…” and to “continue ensuring that students receive individualized supports that meet the requirements of the IEP and 504 Plans.”
What Else is Reopening in NJ?
New Jersey is the second hardest-hit state in the country in terms of total deaths from COVID-19 with nearly 15,000 fatalities tied to the virus, behind only New York. However, while other parts of the country have seen a recent surge in new coronavirus cases, New Jersey, along with a number of its neighboring states, continues to trend down from its highs in April.