TRENTON, NJ -- Gov. Phil Murphy announced Wednesday that he would sign an Executive Order officially clearing public and non-public pre-K through 12 schools as well as colleges and universities to reopen for the upcoming academic year.
However, any student who chooses to continue remote learning must be accommodated.
The governor made his announcement despite receiving a flurry of letters Tuesday and Wednesday from teachers, principals and administrators unions hoping to keep school buildings closed in favor of remote learning.
"In-person instruction may fully resume as long as social distancing and other protections are strictly adhered to," Murphy said.
The governor said that New Jersey’s system of education has long been rooted in local control and decision-making based on local input and that for the past six weeks "we’ve relied upon the work of local educational communities to determine the best way for their schools to reopen."
"We’ve provided significant flexibility while also adjusting expectations based on the latest science and data," Murphy added. "At every twist and turn in the road, we’ve been willing to listen, to learn, and to act accordingly. This clear principle has guided us from the very start – we are flexible because we value listening. We are listening because we value flexibility."
New Jersey's school districts, a few more than 600, were required to submit re-opening plans to the state Department of Education for review and approval by Aug. 15; most of the plans are a hybrid of two days in-class instruction and the balance, remote learning.
Henry Goodhue, Hillsborough Education Association president, said he does not have confidence in Hillsborough's return-to-school plan and is concerned for the safety of students, teachers and the community..
"As we debate the return to in-person instruction, the one thing we don't want is to compromise the health and safety of those in school. The Hillsborough Education Association has reviewed the District's reopening plan, and firmly believes that it is hazardous at best and places our students, our educators and the entire community at risk," Goodhue said.
"Now that Governor Murphy has given the Board and administration the option, they need to pass a resolution to reopen Hillsborough's schools this September utilizing an "all virtual format". The decision and its ramifications, are entirely theirs to own," Goodhue added.
"Nothing matters more than the health and safety of our students, our staff and our community," Goodhue said.
The governor Wednesday said school districts that cannot meet all health and safety standards for safe in-person instruction will begin their school year with all-remote learning. In order to do so, the public school district must 1) show plans for satisfying the standards and 2) provide an anticipated date to resume in-person instruction.
"Our commitment to meeting the conditions on the ground with flexibility has not changed. Our focus on protecting students, families, and educators has not changed. 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."
The governor said that the New Jersey Dept. of Education has put forth strong guidelines that put a premium on the health and safety of students and staff while providing avenues by which in-person instruction can safely resume. He said that public and nonpublic schools must certify to the DOE that they are able to meet these standards.
"There is no one-size-fits-all plan to this difficult education situation," Murphy said. "We are home to nearly 600 public school districts, plus charter & renaissance schools, nonpublic & parochial schools, and other specialized places of learning. Each one faces its own unique challenges."
Goodhue is one of 155 teachers' union presidents in New Jersey that signed off on a letter sent to Murphy Wednesday morning, urging the governor to mandate a virtual learning-onlu school reopening.
Citing little time for districts to properly prepare, widespread indoor air quality issues, lack of funding for PPE and other safety protocols, and inadequate screening and quarantine measures in place, the leaders for tens of thousands of school employees are speaking out.
“Given all that our students and community have faced in these last few months, we know how important the re-opening milestone really is,” said John McEntee, president of the Paterson Education Association (PEA). “However, we collectively believe that it is crucial that Gov. Murphy only do so when it is deemed universally safe so that parents, educators and our communities can have clear minds when schools return to in-person instruction."
McEntee has been vocal over the last few weeks on the Paterson School District plan’s shortcomings. However, the struggle to safely reopen is not exclusive to large, urban areas throughout the state. School district plans in suburban areas, such as Hillsborough Township in Somerset County, also face challenges when it comes to finding funds to effectively adhere to state Department of Education (NJDOE) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines.
“Unfunded, ambiguous mandates are not new in our profession, but public school employees have never before encountered ones so hastily constructed and underfunded,” Goodhue said. “The NJDOE has set forth goals that are detached from reality and contrary to the governor’s other executive orders. More concerning is the fact that this lack of guidance and absence of resources place our students and members in real danger.”
In their letter to Gov. Murphy, union presidents did not just focus on the need for remote instruction this fall. They also acknowledged that New Jersey must continue to address the digital divide that still exists, as well as the need to learn from any shortcomings discovered during our virtual instruction this spring, but stated they—and their members—are committed to doing their part. However, they did not mince words when it came to their feelings about returning to school during a pandemic.
“We believe that reopening in September in this current climate is dangerous, reckless and potentially deadly,” McEntee said. “For the safety and health of all, we petition that schools follow a virtual learning model until we can ensure the well-being of our children and the entire school team.”