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Are schools open? What are the safety requirements?

Last Updated: 03/31/2021

2020-2021 SCHOOL YEAR

The majority of schools are 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.

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.

2021-2022 SCHOOL YEAR

As of March 17, 2021, the State expects that every school will be open, and every student and educator will be in their classrooms, for full-time in-person instruction for the 2021-2022 academic year.

Public Health Guidance for In-Person Learning

The Department of Health has revised its K-12 Public Health Guidance for Local Health Departments. School closure is a local decision that should be made by school administrators in consultation with local public health officials.

Based on available data, in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission. Though outbreaks do occur in school settings, multiple studies have shown that transmission within school settings is typically lower than or at least similar to levels of community transmission when mitigation strategies are in place in schools.

Local health departments should continue to use the COVID-19 Regional Risk Matrix when providing guidance for schools on actions they should take based on the level of COVID-19 risk in their region.

The Department of Health recommends full in-person instruction with a minimum of 3 feet of physical distancing between students maintained in classrooms for elementary schools across low, moderate and high risk and for middle/high school when the region is in low and moderate risk level.

When the region is in high risk, middle/high schools should maintain 6 feet of physical distancing to the greatest extent possible and consider in-person instruction if they are able to maximize physical distancing of 6 feet or more. This additional space for middle/high school students is recommended because they have a higher incidence of transmission than younger children.

Strict adherence to mask-wearing should be enforced at all times across all grades and risk levels.

The Department of Health continues to recommend 6 feet of physical distancing when masks cannot be worn, such as while eating and drinking. Six feet of physical distancing is particularly important between staff members in the school building and between staff members and students, in common areas, and during activities like singing and sports when increased exhalation occurs.

Students and staff are required to stay home when sick. Students and staff, unless fully vaccinated and asymptomatic, should stay home if they have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 within the past 14 days.

Teachers and staff who have been fully vaccinated should continue to follow current guidance to protect themselves and others, including wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet away from others while in the community, avoiding crowds, covering coughs and sneezes and washing hands often.

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.

Reopening Guidance for Schools

The Department of Education has provided a School Reopening FAQ page with common questions about school reopening guidelines.

The Department of Education's 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. Schools should work with their local health departments when making determinations regarding the appropriate distance between students and school staff.
  • 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. School staff and visitors are also required to wear face coverings. For more information, refer to DOE's guidance on face coverings.

For full details, additional updates, and supplemental guidance, refer to the Department of Education's reopening guidance.

During periods of high COVID-19 community transmission, districts have the 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. This flexibility is intended to allow districts to prioritize in-person instruction amidst changing community conditions.

Note: Beginning November 5, 2020 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.

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.

Digital Learning

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.

As of March 10, 2021, the reported number of students across New Jersey lacking either a device or connectivity for remote learning is zero. Statistics on student device and connectivity 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 through 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; Governor's Remarks 3/17/21