New Jersey schools will reopen with masks, social distancing and new general rules under newly released plan

New Jersey’s 2,500 public schools will open for the 2020-2021 school year, but classes will be unlike anything students and teachers have ever experienced before, state officials announced Friday.

Students will be kept six feet apart in classrooms and on buses, lunch hours will be staggered, and teachers will be required to wear masks, according to new guidelines published by the state Department of Education.

Students will also be “strongly encouraged” to wear face covers all day and will be asked to wear them when they are unable to maintain social distancing at school.

The new rules are part of a long-awaited report “The Way Back: Reboot and Recovery Plan for Education” compiled by state education officials that will serve as a plan as schools prepare for the return of the 1.4 million of state students as the coronavirus pandemic continues

State officials said they don’t have a single plan for the reopening, so each of New Jersey’s 577 public school districts will have to weigh its options and come up with its own proposal that meets or exceeds the minimum guidelines. That could mean big changes to school hours and start times.

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All districts will be required to have some form of in-person instruction, state officials said. Therefore, keeping school buildings closed for remote learning across the district is not an option. But schools can develop a “hybrid” model with face-to-face and distance learning for students.

“This is an unprecedented time for our students and educators, but we are pleased to announce that we anticipate returning to our classrooms in some way this fall,” Governor Phil Murphy said in a statement. “Back to school will pose challenges, but we are confident that New Jersey school districts can move forward in ways that best meet the needs of their district while achieving a safe environment for students and staff.”

Under the guidelines:

– All teachers, school staff, and visitors must wear masks unless they are unable to do so for health reasons. Students must also wear masks when they cannot stay six feet away and are encouraged, but not required, to cover their faces throughout the school day.

– Schools must “strive” for social distancing in the classroom and on school buses. If there is not enough space to keep students six feet apart, districts should consider the physical barriers between desks and turn all desks in the same direction. They should also consider installing barriers on buses.

–Students may eat lunch in school cafeterias, but meal times must be staggered to allow for social distancing and disinfection. Self-service and buffet-style food service will not be allowed.

– Recess and gymnasium will be allowed, but school districts must limit group size and mark areas to “ensure separation between students.” Playground and other equipment must be disinfected between uses. The gym locker rooms will be closed. Contact sports will not be allowed at this time.

– Schools should establish a plan to screen students and staff for symptoms of COVID-19 and work with the local health department and school nurses to use contact tracking to identify those who have become in contact with people who tested positive.

– Floors and sidewalks should have tape and signs to help guide how students should walk to maintain social distance in common areas and hallways. Schools must also step up their cleaning and disinfection schedules. Bathrooms should be cleaned and disinfected “in-use as much as possible.”

Murphy required state schools to close on March 18, leaving officials to struggle to establish distance learning plans as students got used to learning from home.

Parents have also been waiting for an announcement on when and if their children will return to school in the fall so that families can make decisions about childcare and return to work.

Each school district is expected to publish its own reopening plan using the state guide, which means it could take several more weeks before students and their families know exactly how they will return to school.

The guidelines say that districts must share their plans with families at least four weeks before school begins so that parents can plan.

The guidelines mean that many districts will need to make difficult decisions about how to set up classrooms and other spaces for social distancing, along with how to create a bus schedule that allows students to sit six feet away.

“I understand this will not be an easy task,” said state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet of the reopening plan.

State officials recognized that getting toddlers or disabled students to wear masks all day could be difficult. They also said that it may be impossible to maintain social distancing on school buses.

Some districts may also need to wobble when the school day begins or modify school hours, creating the need for more before and after school child care for families, state officials said.

If coronavirus infection rates increase, school districts may need to abandon their plans and return to distance education, state authorities warned.

“Because reopening is dependent on health data and reported by experts in the health field, districts should be prepared to move to remote instruction at any time during the 2020-2021 school year,” said the announcement of the state.

From further disinfection to the mandatory purchase of personal protective equipment, the new requirements are expected to bring additional costs to school districts, including many budget cuts due to a reduction in state funding.

“To the greatest extent possible, districts should consider overspending multiple accounts or items to cover unforeseen costs and manage their cash flow,” the guidelines say.

Schools can also take advantage of emergency reserve funds, but the Education Department commissioner needs to approve the requests, state officials said.

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Personal editor Adam Clark contributed to this report.

Kelly Heyboer can be reached in [email protected].

Matt Arco can be reached in [email protected].

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