With an announcement made Wednesday by Gov. Phil Murphy, more schools in New Jersey may choose to begin the 2020-2021 academic year online only.

Schools that go remote to start the fall, however, will be required to declare an anticipated date for the return of in-person instruction in some capacity.

While medical professionals, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, agree with the "safety first" approach, there is also a push among this community to get children back into a real classroom setting as soon as possible, meaning when a school can meet the state's safety and health guidelines for COVID-19.

Meg Fisher, medical director of the Unterberg Children's Hospital at Monmouth Medical Center, told New Jersey 101.5 that most children learn better in a face-to-face setting, while also benefiting from real-life social interactions with their classmates. Those interactions, she said, are still possible with social distancing measures in place.

"And for many children, they receive services at school that they can't get at home, such as speech therapy, sometimes physical therapy, occupational therapy," Fisher said.

High school students who are "self starters" and don't need much guidance, Fisher said, can likely handle online learning without a hitch. But the process for elementary school students, coming into a new grade, may not be as seamless.

"They're going to need someone with them to help them stay engaged if they're just learning online," Fisher said. "If a parent is working or if a parent has multiple children, you can see where that's going to be difficult."

New Jersey families have been dealing with similar obstacles since in-person instruction was halted in March due to the public health emergency. Schools are permitted to resume in-person learning this fall, but education organizations have been urging Gov. Murphy to order a remote start for all districts.

“The stakes are too high, and the consequences of a wrong decision are too grave,” they wrote in their statement, adding that they support a return to classroom instruction “as soon as the science and data say we can do so responsibly and when the resources are available in our school buildings to do it safely.”

Tanya Maloney, an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Montclair State University, said forced online learning has allowed some New Jersey children to flourish — such as those who may not feel comfortable speaking up or asking for assistance.

"This online context allows children to engage in what they may not do when they are physically sitting next to folks," Maloney said.

Maloney said when the virus allows schools to reopen for in-person instruction without an online component, educators and administrators will hopefully keep in mind the inequities that were exposed during the health crisis.

Murphy announced Wednesday that schools will be able to start the year completely online if they can't meet all of the state's health and safety guidelines. But these schools must also show that they're working toward creating an environment that will allow for in-person instruction.

With previous reporting by Dan Alexander

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