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EATONTOWN — As of July 1, career and training schools in New Jersey can reopen, subject to protocols set by their respective agencies of oversight, according to Gov. Phil Murphy.

But Murphy's Wednesday announcement came exactly two weeks before that July 1 date, or right at the 14-day minimum mark for those institutions to submit their restart plans to the state.

That is just not enough time for the schools to reopen at the earliest possible opportunity, said Frank Preston, president of ACI Medical & Dental School in Eatontown.

As far back as April 9, ACI had received approval to be able to have its students, who virtually rushed through the end of the learning portion of their programs, do "clinicals," or hands-on practice. Skills developed in that phase of education include drawing blood, conducting electrocardiograms, or taking dental X-rays.

But further guidance on that approval didn't come until Wednesday, delaying these students' entry into the workforce.

Without the knowledge gained in clinicals, Preston said, prospective graduates not only can't accept job offers they may receive, but they can't even embark on internships to enhance their experience. He said some have indeed received offers from well-known New Jersey healthcare systems like Hackensack Meridian and CentraState, but have had to turn them down.

"We have a lot of organizations, healthcare organizations, hospitals, doctor's offices, dental offices, that we have very strong relationships with that utilize our students for staffing," Karen Brey, ACI vice president and director of career services, said. "They're not able to get the people on the front lines that they're looking for in order to fulfill the healthcare job opportunities that are available, especially now during COVID-19."

Two- and four-year medical programs are under different governance than ACI, which is a post-secondary school, and Preston worries that the separate guidance those colleges and universities have received is already shutting his students out of jobs.

"The frustrating part is that there are certain schools that have received that, that answer to (the state Department of) Higher Education," he said. "We answer to DOL (the Department of Labor & Workforce Development) ... All our students are on hold. We have two groups of students that have taken their national credentials didactically and completed those, and are waiting for their clinicals to come on campus."

To Preston, the urgency with which ACI and other schools like it want to reopen is logical; not only would they be able to complete the educational process for their students, but those students would also likely go directly into the workforce to drive down New Jersey's record unemployment rate.

He said his institution has laid out in theory how it would reopen, but because of the process of getting those plans approved by the state, he doesn't foresee resuming instruction until mid-July, which he calls a "huge, huge hardship."

"We're wearing face masks, and we're limiting the amount of students per instructor to 10 within a clinical environment, so that they're not within large groups of students on campus," Preston said.

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