More than two months out, Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday tried to put his early-summer imprint on what schools will look like when they reopen in the fall — even while acknowledging there is a chance that picture may shift again by then.
Murphy released his administration’s much-anticipated “Road Forward” guidance for reopening schools, including what will surely be the headline of the day: Students and staff would not be required by the state to wear masks upon their return.
But that’s where the caveats started. Murphy also said local districts could individually choose to have such mandates in place, and new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could also upend those plans.
“This is our best sense of what back to school looks like,” Murphy said at a virtual press briefing Monday afternoon. “Far more than an educated guess, and I feel quite comfortable putting this out.
“But there is still over two months before schools open, and we reserve the right depending on what the virus does or what the CDC pronounces to revisit some of this.”
And just as Murphy’s administration was devising its plans, for instance, New Jersey’s largest district of Newark has said that its schools would still require masking for now.
Such is the case with so much of this pandemic that has taken the state and its schools over titanic waves of uncertainty over the last 15 months.
With each passing week or month, schools have had to shift or adapt on their own, not only between remote and in-person instruction — and this newfound concept of “hybrid” learning — but also around how schools operate outside the classroom and what is and isn’t permitted at any given time.
Over the last month, Murphy tried to answer one uncertainty when he decreed that schools would be demanded to provide in-person instruction full-time, saying that students’ and teachers’ experiences with virtual learning left too much damage. Still, he hedged a couple of times in whether masking would be required, drawing criticism in a politically charged issue not just here but nationally.
The masking debate, in-person ultimatum
Murphy now has said it remains somewhat speculative until students and staff prepare to walk into their buildings in September. But hoping to avoid the pitfalls of the spring, the governor clearly wanted to take the state out of the masking debate with his announcement , leaving unsaid the fact that he’s running for reelection in November and will surely face the electorate’s judgment of his response to the pandemic overall.
The guidance is more than about just masking, too, and school leaders and other stakeholders had pressed the state’s Department of Education and health department to provide more information on what to prepare for.
A big question concerned social distancing, and whether student desks would need to remain at least 3 feet from their neighbors or whether that distancing would also remain in cafeterias or school buses.
To those questions, the Murphy administration also allowed local discretion in its latest guidance, saying that distancing in the classroom and elsewhere would still be preferred but not required. He said masks would be required on school buses, per the CDC’s recommendation, at least for now.
Yet in one ultimatum, Murphy said Monday even schools that can’t meet all the safety protocols must still be all in-person. “If you can’t meet the recommendation, we still need you to open,” he said.
Education leaders react
Several of the state’s main education groups were reserving judgment to further review the guidance, and the state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, was especially circumspect. The union and its local chapters have been particularly outspoken over the last year in pressing for health and safety measures.
“New Jersey schools should continue to follow the best medical guidance when schools reopen in the fall,” said Steve Baker, the NJEA’s chief spokesman.
“If the scientific consensus says that they can do so safely without mandatory masking or other mitigation measures, it will help to restore a greater sense of normalcy,” he said. “But if the guidance still calls for masking or other measures, we must be guided by that and not by political pressure.”
Still, some school leaders were pleased to have at least some guidance from the state in hand as they finish up their school year and start looking to the next.
Robert Zywicki, superintendent of Mount Olive schools and an outspoken proponent of making masks optional, said he could finally tell families that schools will open in the fall as they always have before last year.
‘Back to normalcy’
“We’re finally to a place where we are back to normalcy,” he said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News.
Asked if there will be families that want masks to be worn, especially as children younger than 12 are unlikely to be vaccinated, the superintendent said, “I think there may be hesitancy among some parents, but we still have two months of vaccinations on the horizon and diminishing case rates.”
But Zywicki said he’s pleased with the governor’s approach: “Ultimately, it’s leaving local control to make that decision.”