NJ Schools to Fully Open in September — Maybe Sooner — Murphy Says
Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday said that all school buildings in the state would be open by the fall.
The announcement followed news that Johnson & Johnson's new COVID-19 vaccine would be rolled out this week and school workers would be placed at the front of the vaccine line this month.
On MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Murphy said that including educators would go a long way toward reopening classrooms for full in-person instruction.
“Protecting our kids, getting them the best education, helping moms and dads cover the extraordinarily stressful period having to work from home and kids who are in school systems that are not in-person — it’s an imperative of ours to get schools back on their feet,” Murphy said.
He answered "emphatically yes" when asked if schools would be fully open in September and hoped it would be “a lot sooner.”
Many schools have remained closed, with children learning from home, since Murphy declared a state of emergency nearly a year ago. Parents have been forced to also work from home or make arrangements to keep their children supervised during the school day.
Frustrations are boiling over in some districts as parents are pushing to get their kids back inside classrooms while the teachers union insists it is still not safe to do so. While Murphy favors returning students to classrooms, he has left it up to individual districts to determine how and when to return.
A rally called the One Year Out of School: NJ Rally for In-Person Learning is being organized for Saturday, March 13 in Bridgewater at the municipal complex, in Rand Park in Montclair and another in Hamilton (Mercer). Similar rallies are planned in 25 states.
The New Jersey Education Association on Monday applauded Murphy's announcement about placing teachers on the priority list and called on him to extend the priority to workers in colleges and universities.
"With nearly 1.4 million students and over 200,000 adults, one out of every six New Jersey residents is connected directly to our public schools. Count the families they go home to and no institution in our state directly connects to more individuals than our public schools," the NJEA said in written statement. "The sooner educators are vaccinated, the sooner our entire state is safer."
Mount Olive schools Superintendent Rob Zywicki told New Jersey 101.5 that he and his staff are thrilled at the news of vaccines for educators.
"We've been waiting for this for a long time," he said. "I've always maintained that our teachers, our school staff, our custodians and our school bus drivers are front line employees who should have been in that first 1B phase."
Newark has announced it will remain all-remote until mid April while Paterson and Trenton will remain remote until May. Hillside will not return to classrooms until September.
Melanie Santos, mother of four children who attend school in the district, is part of the Bridgewater-Raritan Parents group pushing for a full return to classrooms.
"This group of families, which is continuing to grow, it's not us looking to be against the teachers," Santos told New Jersey 101.5 "We are in support of the teachers. But we're also in support of our children and our children's academic needs have literally been drifted for the past year."
The hybrid schedule the district is currently following is not enough for Santos. She cited her own children — a high school senior, a sixth-grader, a second-grader and a kindergartner — as examples of why online learning isn't working.
"My kindergartner who's supposed to be learning how to read and supposed to be learning how to write, how do you do that through a computer? It's not a way of learning," Santos said, adding that her child has only been in school 25 out of 104 school days.
"I know the teachers are trying because I hear them. I hear the excitement in my senior's class when he's on his meets with his teachers. I hear the excitement in the teacher's tone. But there are kids for weeks you still hear their name being called with no answer," Santos said.
The group has proposed a "virtual academy" for parents who are not ready for their kids to be back in school and to use school cafeterias as classrooms for better social distancing. Both plans were dismissed by administrators, Santos said.
"We want answers and they're not giving answers. We want to know what September's going to look like. There's a lot of people who are considering either private schools, moving or just looking for something completely different," Santos said.
In Montclair, the district filed a filed a lawsuit against the union after teachers refused to return to classrooms because of problems with building ventilation system.
A group of Montclair parents, meanwhile, have filed a lawsuit against the school district and Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, accusing them of putting the interests of children "dead last" during the pandemic. The parents seek a full, five day a week return to in-person instruction.
"With their arbitrary rules that fly in the face of the recommendations of experts across different disciplines, the children of the District have been deprived of their right to an education," according to the parents' lawsuit. "Sadly, there has been no one to speak for our children over the last twelve months as they silently suffered with remote learning. This lawsuit seeks to remedy the situation on their behalf."
Steven Baffico said his third-grade daughter enjoyed being in school and has become depressed with a lack of drive, excitement or zest for learning. Andrew and Amy Kenny's fifth- and sixth-grade daughters are unhappy because they cannot share their learning experiences with classmates. The sixth-grader is upset because she has to choose her middle school without being able to visit.
The second-grade daughter of Jacob and Cara Lewis is experiencing "heightened anxiety that has manifested into trichotillomania (hair pulling), sleep disorders and an overall depression."
Zywicki laid out a firm course for a return to classrooms by March 22. He said the key was communication with staff and parents about the plan.
"Because there's that open communication people feel that they're part of the process. They know that safety is our top priority and that's how we were able to do it," he said.
"In my constant communication with my staff and including them in my decisions, they know my commitment to keeping them safe. I have a very dedicated staff who wants our kids back in. They recognize that they need to be here," Zywicki said.
He said K-5 students had been back with half days plus lunch at school but went to a full day on Tuesday.
"We're an exemplar that you can serve lunch and have kids in school on a cohort system in a pandemic. And now we're going to that next phase where we're going to combine the two A-B cohorts into an in-person cohort and whoever wants to stay remote can stay remote," Zywicki said.