New Jersey schools will reopen for in-person instruction in the fall, presuming coronavirus infection rates don’t rebound, though the Murphy administration recommends that districts implement a hybrid approach in which students also receive remote instruction some days.

K-12 education in the 2020-21 school year won’t look familiar. Administration officials say local reopening plans that call for all students to be in school at the same time won’t be realistic in most schools. But they also say that all-virtual learning won’t be allowed, at least to start in the fall.

“We recognize that COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we interact with one another and will change the way students learn,” said an administration official, in advance of the formal announcement at an afternoon briefing in Trenton. “The health and safety standards outline a new way of life for students as they return to school in person.”

Details will be developed locally in each district. The state says districts should try to share preliminary scheduling plans with staff and students at least four weeks before the start of the school year.

The state Department of Education today announced minimum standards that schools must follow to protect the health of students and staff. That guidance and recommendations include:

  • Masks will be required for school staff and visitors. They’re strongly encouraged for students and required when social distancing can’t be maintained, including on buses. The guidance acknowledges enforcement is impractical for students who are young or have disabilities.
  • Social distancing in classrooms, primarily by seating students at least 6 feet apart. If that’s not possible, physical barriers could be built between desks.
  • Districts must screen students and employees for COVID-19 symptoms and exposure. Those with symptoms must be safely and respectfully isolated from others. The guidance talks about observing students, though temperature checks are preferred.
  • Procedures must be implemented for sanitizing schools and school buses.
  • Cafeteria directors must stagger meal times and discontinue self-serve or buffet lines. They should consider having students eat grab-and-go meals in their classrooms.
  • Recess should also be implemented in staggered shifts, with playground equipment and other shared equipment disinfected by staff between uses.
  • Districts are encouraged to consider closing locker rooms. Instead, students would be encouraged to wear comfortable clothing and safe footwear to take part in physical education classes without needing to change clothes.
  • Social distancing is expected on school buses. The CDC recommends that only one student be seated in a row, with rows skipped between each child if possible. Barriers separating rows of seats are also possible.

The rules will be set through an executive order, making it subject to change as needed.

“We must be ready to adjust our educational models should the spread of the virus and consistent health data require it,” said an administration official, who said districts must be prepared to pivot to remote instruction at any time during the school year.

The guidance from the state says school districts may have to modify attendance and instructional time policies for the 2020-21 school year and that staff roles will have to expand to include new safety rules. It says changes might be needed for each interscholastic sports season.

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