TRENTON, NJ — Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday announced that school districts could have the option of staying closed to students in the fall because of the threat COVID-19 poses.

Under intense pressure from public teachers’ unions in the state, Murphy said in his coronavirus briefing that schools now are able to choose to remain closed and conduct all classes remotely.

“Districts that cannot meet all health and safety standards will begin in all remote learning,” Murphy said.

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The governor signed an executive order allowing pre-K through Grade 12 schools, and college campuses, to reopen. But school districts may not reopen without meeting all health and safety standards put forth by the state.

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The governor 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 show plans for satisfying the standards and 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,” Murphy said. “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.”

Kevin Dehmer, interim commissioner of the state Department of Education, said that stakeholders’ input continues to be a key part of the state’s guidance.

“Educators and pediatric experts around the country agree on the importance of in person instruction to a child’s personal and developmental growth,” Dehmer said at the news conference. “And we all agree that in person instruction needs to be done as safe as possible.”

State guidelines issued earlier this summer required school districts offer an in-school option for students, while also allowing parents the choice of having a fully online learning option for their kids.

By mid-September, for schools that do not reopen, it will have been six months since New Jersey public school students have been inside classrooms.

Over the last several weeks, public school districts in New Jersey have unveiled elaborate and detailed reopening plans, restrictions and guidelines.

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Murphy has said that “science and data” will determine reopening decisions. Hospitalizations related to the coronavirus in New Jersey have fallen from 2,466 on June 1 to 538 on Aug. 11.

In the first 11 days of August, the state averaged just under 350 new cases a day (down by about 90 percent from the peak daily average early in the spring), with a positivity rate well under 2.0. At its peak in April, there were several days when there were more than 4,000 new COVID-19 cases a day.

A statewide survey from Fairleigh Dickinson University conducted in July found 46 percent of parents in favor of reopening with existing protective measures and 42 percent favoring fully remote learning at the start of the school year. But last week, NPR reported the results of a recently conducted poll that found two-thirds of K-12 teachers prefer fall classes to be primarily remote, and even more are concerned about returning to in-person teaching.

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But on Tuesday night, Dr. Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators; Patricia Wright, executive director of the NJPSA; and Marie Blistan, president of the NJEA, issued a joint statement pressuring the Governor to keep the schools shuttered.

“While remote education cannot replace in-person instruction, we believe that a carefully planned, well-resourced remote education plan is better than the dangerous, uncertain in-person alternative currently available to us,” said part of the statement.

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