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Are schools open? What are the safety requirements?
2020-2021 SCHOOL YEAR
The majority of schools currently remain open in some form for in-person instruction.
Every school must reopen in accordance with the health and safety guidelines outlined in the State's reopening guidance, but this is a challenge for many school districts.
If a district can't meet the standards currently, these districts can operate via remote-only instruction until they can meet health and safety standards. They must also submit a plan and timeline for when they can meet these standards. Districts must report any changes to their plans to their Executive County Superintendents.
Many students will need a safe space to learn, even during periods of remote instruction as not all families can provide supervision during remote instruction days. Parents/caretakers with school-age children (5 to 13 years old) in need of child care due to schools' remote learning schedules this fall can apply for tuition assistance from the New Jersey School-Age Tuition Assistance Program.
In addition, if a school district has remaining available facility space that has been certified as meeting health and safety standards, the district may use that space to monitor remote learning for students. Districts can also partner with child care providers licensed by the Department of Children and Families to create remote learning centers.
Reopening Guidance for In-Person Instruction
The Department of Education has provided a School Reopening FAQ page with common questions about fall school reopening guidelines.
The reopening guidance describes several health and safety standards to be prioritized in school reopening, recognizing that flexibility is needed as each school will have unique needs and circumstances, and some efforts will need to be guided by local health officials:
- Social distancing: Schools and districts must allow for social distancing within the classroom. If schools are not able to maintain this physical distance, additional modifications should be considered.
- Face coverings: Students are required to wear face coverings at all times while inside a school building, regardless of social distancing, unless doing so would inhibit the individual's health or for other outlined exceptions, while providing any necessary accommodations for young students or students with disabilities. School staff and visitors are also required to wear face coverings. For more information, refer to DOE's guidance on face coverings.
- Limited capacity: It is recommended that students and staff be seated at least six feet apart in class when practicable. When weather allows, windows should be opened to allow for greater air circulation.
- Cleaning/disinfecting: Procedures must be implemented by each school district for the sanitization of school buildings and school buses. Increased handwashing measures are also important for students and staff.
Other provisions in the guidance include:
- Cafeteria directors should consider staggering meal times to allow for social distancing; discontinuing self-serve or buffet lines; having students eat meals outside or in their classrooms; and requiring staff to disinfect eating areas between groups.
- Recess should also be held in staggered shifts, with efforts to promote social distancing and hygiene protocols.
- Cohorting: Schools may wish to identify small groups of students and keep them together (cohorting) to ensure that student and staff groupings are as static as possible, thereby limiting exposure to large groups of students.
- School buses: If a district is providing transportation services on a school bus, a face covering must be worn by all students upon entering the bus unless doing so would inhibit the student's health. Operators should encourage social distancing. CDC guidelines recommend seating on a school bus such that there is one student seated per row, skipping a row between each child, if possible.
For full details, refer to the Department of Education's reopening page for reopening guidance, updates, and supplemental guidance.
For larger districts, the sheer number of students in a building may make it impractical for all students to be in their schools at once. For these districts, we are providing them with flexibility to rearrange their school schedules to allow for grouping -- or cohorting -- of students, or by implementing hybrid learning environments in which students receive both in-person and remote instruction.
To assist with development and review of school reopening plans, the DOE has provided a Checklist for the Re-Opening of Schools.
Note: Beginning November 5, employers must adhere to new employee protection guidelines, summarized here. Detailed requirements, as well as exemptions for certain employers, can be found in Executive Order No. 192.
Public Health Recommendations for School Reopening
Because reopening is dependent upon health data and informed by experts in the health field, districts will need to be prepared to pivot to remote instruction at any time during the 2020-2021 school year.
School closure is a local decision that should be made by school administrators in consultation with local public health officials.
The Department of Health has released detailed health and safety guidance for local health departments to use in partnership with school districts.
This guidance uses a regional approach to determine risk within the broader school community and puts protocols into place to ensure, when a COVID-19 case is identified, individuals are removed as quickly and carefully as possible from the building environment.
Every week, the Department of Health will provide information on COVID-19 transmission at the regional level, characterizing risk as low (green), moderate (yellow), high (orange), and very high (red).
When regions are in the very high-risk category (red), it is recommended that they implement fully remote learning.
Schools in other risk levels will consult with their local health departments as they work to implement protocols requiring staff and students to stay home when sick or if they have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19, develop a policy for daily symptom screening, and identify rapid testing resources when staff and students develop COVID-19 symptoms.
The Department of Health has issued COVID-19 recommendationsfor schools that cover steps to take to respond to cases and outbreaks in schools. If a student tests positive for COVID-19, the places where the student spent significant time should be closed for 24 hours and then cleaned before they are put back in use.
Districts must also report any known positives to the local health department, who will use a newly developed DOH Regional Risk Matrix to determine whether further steps—such as completely closing a school—are necessary.
For the latest information on in-school transmission in each county and the numbers of coronavirus cases identified with these instances, refer to the State's COVID-19 dashboard.
In school transmission is considered the transmission of the virus between students and/or school staff that occurs on school property in the context of academic activities.
Remote Learning Option
All districts must provide a remote learning option for parents or guardians who request it for their children.
The Department of Education has issued additional guidance for parents who choose full-time remote learning for their children in the 2020-2021 school year.
The core elements of the guidance include:
- Universal eligibility: All students, including students who receive special education or related services, are eligible for full-time remote learning if their parent or guardian chooses.
- Policies and procedures: School districts must set clear policies and procedures for families who want full-time remote learning for their children. School districts also need procedures for students in full-time remote learning to transition back to in-person services.
- Communications: School districts must communicate clearly and frequently with families, in their home language, about the availability of this offering and the related procedures.
- Quality of programming: Students participating in all-remote instruction should receive the same quality of instruction that is provided to any other student. In addition, full-time remote programs must adhere to the same policies and regulations that in-person and hybrid programs follow regarding student attendance and the length of the school day.
- Data reporting: To help the Department evaluate fulltime remote learning, school districts will report data to the Department about student participation in these programs.
The full guidance is available on the Department of Education's "Restart and Recovery: The Road Back" webpage.
Parents will have the option to choose all-remote learning for their children.
Closing The Digital Divide
To address "the digital divide" and ensure reliable internet connectivity and access to one-to-one digital devices for every student, the Bridge the Digital Divide grant opportunity offers funding to public school districts to purchase digital devices and Internet connectivity.
In addition, the Department of Education's Virtual Learning Toolkit provides a set of comprehensive resources with information about technology and financial resources to help families, schools, and districts adjust to online instruction.
Each week, local education agencies are required to share information on the number of Pre-K 3 to Grade 12 students currently needing devices and/or internet connectivity and the barriers preventing students who need a device and/or connectivity from having access to them. Statistics on student device and connectivity needs are available online from the Department of Education.
The Road Forward
On February 19, 2021, Governor Murphy announced "The Road Forward," a series of coordinated policy initiatives that dramatically expand the Administration's efforts to identify and address the academic and mental health impacts of COVID-19 on New Jersey students and educators.
As part of this coordinated initiative, $1.2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds will be made available to school districts, including grants dedicated specifically to research-based instructional and mental health interventions.
For more information, refer to the Governor's 2/19/21 press release.
Sources: Department of Education Restart & Recovery Plan: The Road Back, DOE Clarifying Guidance For Full-Time Remote Learning; DOE School Reopening Frequently Asked Questions; Checklist for the Re-Opening of School 2020-2021; Executive Order No. 175; DOH COVID-19 Public Health Recommendations for Local Health Departments for K-12 Schools