With his state now into its third school year touched by the COVID-19 pandemic, the political stakes of this back-to-school season are as high as ever for Gov. Phil Murphy.
The issue transcends his reelection prospects in less than six weeks, because his handling of schools and emotion-charged families will surely play big in the ultimate scorecard on his response to the pandemic.
And at least so far, Murphy appears to be breathing a sigh of relief.
The governor Wednesday focused on the start of the school year in his latest pandemic briefing, and he said there were mostly encouraging signs after an uncertain summer when state guidance was in flux — if not outright confusing, some would say — and protests simmered over masking and vaccine mandates.
While the state’s infection numbers for schools are modest, districts have individually been reporting hundreds of infections on their own. And with masking mandates on their agendas, school board meetings in some towns have been contentious, to put it mildly.
But two weeks into a new school year that could have gone either way, Murphy was definitely taking the glass-half-full approach Wednesday.
“This is not going to be a straight line, we never thought it would be,” Murphy said. “But considering the broader picture, up and down the state, it is a strong start.”
Mandates in place
As he has in the past, Murphy and his senior staff focused on vaccinations, with mandates on educators to be fully vaccinated or face weekly testing already in place, effective Oct. 18.
And there were hints that, once the vaccines are approved for all ages, such requirements may come for students, too. State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli led her comments by listing 10 vaccines that are currently required for students who attend public schools, from polio to tetanus.
Such a mandate would come with political peril, to be sure, and the rollout of vaccines for school-age children has been mixed so far. Persichilli said 59% of children aged 12 to 17 had received at least one dose, with the rate rising to nearly 70% among 16- and 17-year olds. But only about half of those 12 to 15 have received a dose.
More encouraging has been the state’s testing initiative, she said. More than 750 districts, charters and private schools signed up to take part in a program where the state is putting up $267 million for districts to pay for their own testing of students and staff.
“This large number demonstrates the commitment of schools to keep their students and staff safe,” she said.
It’s not the only money the state is putting forward at this time, albeit much of it coming from the federal government. For the start of the year, the state provided more than six million surgical and N95 masks to schools, officials said, with more to come.
The application process for more than $2.4 billion in federal COVID aid also opens next week, aimed at meeting the needs of local districts in addressing setbacks in instruction after many months of remote schooling.
Districts may apply the funds to programs such as tutoring, summer instruction or other added initiatives, and mental health, officials said. The state is also providing another $48 million in grants specifically to strengthen mental-health services for students and staff members.
“I want to acknowledge the difficulty of the transition for some, but students and educators continue to demonstrate tremendous resolve in developing new tools to adapt,” said state Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan.