Gov. Murphy delivered a message for parents on March 24: Get your children ready to go back to school in the fall, in-person. He added that he does not expect schools to offer a virtual option for students, so children would not be allowed to stay home while other students are in school.

“Now is the time for all of our schools to meaningfully move forward with a return to in-person instruction whether it be full-time or through a hybrid schedule,” Murphy told reporters.

With rising vaccination levels for teachers and parents, and with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issuing new guidance saying that students – especially in elementary school – can be as close as three feet apart, Murphy said it is time to get kids back in school.

About 90 school districts with 302,000 students are still all-remote, state officials said last week, according to NJ.com.  That includes many of the state’s largest school districts.

“These students have now been out of their regular classrooms for more than a year. We know there has been learning loss in these scenarios, especially,” Murphy said.

Some districts want to reopen this spring to get a head start on the fall.

Paterson schools announced recently that they will reopen on May 3, with teachers coming back first and students to follow. The plan for now is a “hybrid” model, with students coming on select days of the week and staying at home for online instruction the others.

“Things are definitely looking much better for us,” Paterson superintendent Eileen Shafer said. In a March 22 story in NJSpotlight News, Shafer said that $6 million in air purifiers are on the way. “We have 16 buildings that are 100 years old, so for us, we’re eagerly waiting for the delivery of air purifiers… We will have one in every room of every building.”

She told NJSpotlight the effort will be worth it, even if it is just for a few weeks this spring. “It is really important we get everyone back and acclimated to the new normal,” she said. “This is a good segue to making everyone feeling comfortable again.”

Elsewhere, the challenges are similar for bringing students back. The KIPP networks of charter schools serving Newark and Camden are among more than 40 charter schools statewide that have remained all-remote during the pandemic.

KIPP’s Camden schools have announced to their nearly 1,800 students and families that they will return to school and a hybrid model on April 26. The schools’ leader said the game-changer was the state’s recent vaccine prioritization for teachers.

Leading the state’s school system through reopening in the fall will be a key test for Gov. Murphy, who will stand for re-election less than two months after Labor Day. NJSpotlight reported that a third of the parents in Paterson and Camden still want their children to continue learning remotely for now. The governor, and local school boards, will have a little more than five months to convince students and staff that it’s safe to reopen schools for in-person instruction again.

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