Going back to school in September will look much different for New Jersey students, who have been remotely learning since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic mid-March.
The New Jersey Department of Education on Friday released guidance for reopening of schools for the 2020-21 school year. The guidelines strongly encourage face masks for students, who are required to stay six feet apart in classrooms and buses. Lunch times will be staggered and teachers are required to wear face masks.
The guidelines are part of the state's "Road Back" restart and recovery plan, and were compiled by New Jersey education officials with input from school district officials, parents/guardians and school communities.
Districts are required to share preliminary scheduling plans at least one month before the first day of school so families can plan ahead, education officials said.
"With this guidance in hand, we have every confidence that, come September, our students will walk into the best public schools in the nation, along with superb private and parochial schools, which are fully prepared for their return," Gov. Phil Murphy said.
Schools must address 10 critical areas of operation in their restart plans, state education officials said in the guidelines summary.
- 1. General Health and Safety Guidelines: In all stages and phases of pandemic response and recovery, schools must comply with Center for Disease Control (CDC), state, and local guidelines. Schools must also provide reasonable accommodations for staff and students at higher risk for severe illness and promote behaviors that reduce spread, such as social distancing, frequent hand washing, and the use of face coverings.
- 2. Classrooms, Testing, and Therapy Rooms: Schools and districts must allow for social distancing to the maximum extent possible. When social distancing is difficult or impossible, face coverings are required, and face coverings are always required for visitors and staff unless it will inhibit the individual’s health. School districts must also minimize use of shared objects, ensure indoor facilities have adequate ventilation, prepare and maintain hand sanitizing stations, and ensure students wash hands frequently.
- 3. Transportation: School districts should maintain social distancing practices on buses to the maximum extent practicable and adopt best practices for cleaning and disinfecting all vehicles used for transporting students. If maintaining social distancing is not possible, all students who are able must wear face coverings while on busses.
- 4. Student Flow, Entry, Exit, and Common Areas: School district reopening plans should establish the process and location for student and staff health screenings. This should include providing physical guides, such as tape on floors or sidewalks and signs on walls, to help ensure that staff and students remain at least six feet apart. When it is not possible to maintain physical distancing, schools must require the use of face coverings.
- 5. Screening, PPE, and Response to Students and Staff Presenting Symptoms: School districts must adopt a policy for safely and respectfully screening students and employees for symptoms of and history of exposure to COVID-19. Students and staff with symptoms related to COVID-19 must be safely and respectfully isolated from others. If a school district becomes aware that an individual who has spent time in a district facility tests positive for COVID-19, district officials must immediately notify local health officials, staff, and families of a confirmed case while maintaining confidentiality.
- 6. Contact Tracing: Used to help identify the source of an outbreak, all school district administrators, school safety specialists, counselors, and any other staff deemed appropriate by the school district, should be provided with information regarding the role of contact tracing in keeping school communities safe from the spread of contagious disease.
- 7. Facilities Cleaning Practices: School districts must continue to adhere to existing required facilities cleaning practices and procedures, and any new specific requirements of the local health department as they arise. School districts must also develop a schedule for increased routine cleaning and disinfecting, especially of frequently touched surfaces and objects, and sanitize bathrooms daily and between use as much as possible.
- 8. Meals: If cafeterias or other group dining areas are in use, school districts must stagger eating times to allow for social distancing and disinfecting of the area between groups. Additionally, districts must discontinue family-style, self-service, and buffet-style dining and maintain social distancing. Cafeteria staff must wash their hands immediately after removing gloves and after directly handling used food service items.
- 9. Recess/Physical Education: School districts must complete an inventory of outdoor spaces and mark off areas to ensure separation between students. Recess must be staggered by groups and staff must disinfect playground equipment and other shared equipment between uses. School districts should also consider closing locker rooms and encouraging students to wear comfortable clothing and safe footwear to school so they can participate in physical education classes without needing to change.
- 10. Extracurricular Activities and Use of Facilities Outside of School Hours: All extracurricular activities must comply with applicable social distancing requirements and hygiene protocol. External community organizations that use school facilities must follow district guidance on health and safety protocols.
The guidelines have been in the works for weeks and take into account differences between schools and education communities, Murphy said, noting the rules acknowledge there's no one size fits all solution.
"Districts must be prepared for the possibility that public health could require another switch to all-remote learning at any time," Murphy said. "Protecting everyone continues to be our top priority."
The guidelines are based on four main principles:
- Ensuring a conducive and learning atmosphere
- Supporting educational leaders with planning
- Providing policy guidance and necessary funding to schools
- Securing continuity of learning
While there will be clear standards to be followed in every district, individual superintendents and local boards of education will be given flexibility to be sure an implementation strategy what respects the unique characteristics of each district, the governor said.
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