New Jersey schools planning for in-person learning this fall

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey's schools will be open for in-person instruction in the fall, as long as COVID-19 trends don't worsen, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday.

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Murphy, a Democrat, unveiled his administration's guidelines for restarting in-person education during his daily news briefing.

The 104-page guidance document lays out a number of requirements, but during a briefing with reporters, Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet stressed that districts will have flexibility to tailor the reopening to fit their needs.

“I understand that this will be no easy feat,” Repollet said. “Our guide will begin to fill in the picture of what a safe education system will look like in the fall.”

The guidelines require in-person instruction, Repollet said. That means districts could not opt for only-online learning, if they wanted. However, the number of days schools require students to report in person, and whether they also use online learning, is up to the districts.

Among the guidelines facing the state's roughly 600 school districts are requirements that they:

— Adopt a screening policy for students and staff.

— "Strive” for social distancing, meaning maintaining 6 feet (2 meters) of distance between people, and if that’s not possible, then physical barriers between desks must be put in place.

— Require staff and visitors to wear masks.

— Encourage, but not require, students to wear masks.

The guidance also addresses school bus and cafeteria protocols, along with sports, though many details will have to be worked out in each district.

On transportation, the Murphy administration recommends keeping social distance on buses where possible, but acknowledges that if it's not, then students must wear face coverings. Repollet also recommended opening the bus' windows if practical.

Buffet-style cafeteria service won't be allowed under the plan, and districts will have to adopt a grab-and-go approach, as well as eating in classrooms, Repollet said.

On athletics, the guidance refers to pending guidelines from the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Districts will have to come up with a plan for increased cleaning and disinfecting, especially for frequently touched surfaces, according to the plan.

Murphy said Friday he was prepared to re-shutter schools if health conditions warranted.

New Jersey's schools shuttered in March when the outbreak first struck in the state, with districts shifting to online learning. Friday's guidelines say state officials anticipate students likely made less than a full year's worth of progress this academic year because of the COVID-19 closure and calls on districts to prioritize returning students who are most in need of in-person instruction.

That could include students with disabilities, English language learners, homeless children, and low-income students, the document says.

School districts should announce their reopening plans four weeks before the start of school, according to the guidance.

A look at other developments:

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THE NUMBERS

There were 524 new cases reported overnight, putting the total at 170,500, Murphy said. There were 44 more deaths reported overnight, pushing the death toll to 13,060, plus 1,854 probable COVID-19 deaths, the governor said.

While other states are seeing an uptick in cases, Murphy said hospitalization rates and the rate of spread of the virus in New Jersey are down compared with Thursday. The rate of positive test results also fell from nearly 4% Thursday to about 2%, Murphy reported Friday.

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CASINOS EYE JULY 3 OPENING

Three Atlantic City casinos said they'll reopen on July 3, instead of July 2, the day Murphy cleared them for restarting.

Bally’s, Caesars and Harrah’s Resort said Friday in a statement they'll open their doors a day after clearance from the governor.

Murphy said Monday casinos could open next week as long as they keep capacity at 25% and require guests and workers to wear masks.

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