TRENTON — Public schools in New Jersey would have to provide solely virtual or remote instruction through October except for limited special education and related services that must be done in-person under a bill being proposed by three Assembly Democrats.

Such an approach would upend the blueprint announced five weeks ago by the state Department of Education, with details worked on since by 585 school districts and 88 charter schools, that require some in-person learning in conjunction with virtual instruction to start the 2020-21 school year.

The bill sponsors, which include the chairs of the Assembly education and higher education committees, say the coronavirus pandemic isn’t over. Their bill would require the Murphy administration to reassess school readiness on a monthly basis starting Oct. 31.

“What we really want to do is make sure we’re protecting everybody, first and foremost,” said Assemblywoman Joann Downey, D-Monmouth, who heads the Assembly Human Services Committee. “The health and safety of our kids, of the educators, everyone else who works in the schools and then our community – that’s the number one priority.”

“Schools are a huge component of our community, and so with that they’re a big community spreader,” Downey said. “We are not there. We are not ready to be able to reopen schools in person.”

Most public schools open either a few days before or after Labor Day, but a handful open as soon as Aug. 27, which is in four weeks.

“We expect that it’s going to get worse in the fall. We don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like, but to open schools right now just seems like the worst thing you could do because you’re putting so many people together in a closed environment,” Downey said. “We don’t even have indoor dining yet. How can you possibly have school like that?”

Gov. Phil Murphy declined to comment on the proposed legislation but reiterated that in-person schooling is important, with adequate safety measures in place.

“We know this unequivocally, that in-person education dwarfs any remote learning in terms of the efficacy and the richness of that experience,” Murphy said.

Murphy said flexibility will be important, allowing remote learning to be used on a part-time basis and, if and when needed, as a full-time option.

“Let’s all accept this is not going to be a normal school year. This is going to be unusual, no matter how we slice it,” Murphy said.

But Murphy said not all families have the financial capacity to hire a tutor and have separate rooms and multiple devices for remote learning. He said “there’s a strong chorus on both sides of this,” with some people worried about equity and others expressing concern about the safety of reopening schools, which were shut in March and shifted to all-virtual learning.

“Especially in communities of color, there is a much higher reliance on in-person education as the only viable option,” Murphy said.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all, and I cannot say that strongly enough,” he said. “We have too many kids where the second choice either doesn’t exist or it’s so far inferior, that gathering them safety and responsibly – that’s not ignoring the health realities; again, the order is health, education, equity, we want to get all three of them – there’s no real Plan B.”

The bill would allow school districts to delay the start of their school year by up to two weeks and use the time to conduct professional development for teachers on delivering remote instruction.

The bill also allows schools to hold outdoor events for students, teachers and parents to meet and develop relationships during the remote learning period, in compliance with social-distancing rules.

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Downey said Murphy “did an amazing job” in flattening New Jersey’s infection curve but noted the rate of transmission has risen – it is recently estimated at 1.14, with anything over 1 indicative that the virus is spreading – along with the seven-day rolling average of new infections, now at its highest since June 11.

“We see even know, which is not unexpected, that we’re starting to see an uptick,” Downey said. “We’re starting to see the transmission rate starting to increase. And that’s because we started to reopen. We had a good reopening plan.”

“We’re all tired of having to live this way, in this weird kind of world,” she said. “But the bottom line is COVID’s not gone. We’d like it to be gone, but it’s not.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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