Governor Murphy held his coronavirus press briefing at 1:00 on Friday, June 26, to report the latest developments and guidance affecting the state as a result of the pandemic. As the topic of schools and the future of school operations has been in discussion and a concern to millions of New Jersey residents, the governor invited Commissioner of Education Dr. Lamont Repollet and Mount Olive Schools Superintendent Dr. Robert Zywicki to present their reports and answer questions.
“All schools will work with the custodial staffs, the unsung heroes… with daily disinfection,” Murphy said. Every gym, classroom, locker, cafeteria, school buses, and more would be subject to heightened sanitary practices. He added that if social distance cannot be maintained students must wear masks. “These restart plans will be done collaboratively on the local level… nothing should be left to the last minute.”
The governor expects school districts will advise families at least 1 month in advance of their plans regarding the new school year as the state rolls out new guidance for districts. “This guidance sets the baseline of standards that must be met,” he said. “Yes, there will be hurdles to overcome in a short period of time but our schools have always proven themselves…”
He said that the guidance was the product of thousands of voices and students will walk into the best schools in the nation fully prepared for their return, with staff who will welcome them to safe and healthy learning environments. The governor unveiled four signature points:
- Ensuring a conducive and learning atmosphere
- Supporting educational leaders with planning
- Providing policy guidance and necessary funding to schools
- Secure continuity of learning
He said that it was necessary to have a plan to “flip a switch” and put on “emergency brakes” if need be, such as a rise in coronavirus cases.
Murphy said, “We are still in the fight, we’re still in the war, we’ve come a long way in New Jersey…” referring to 44 additional fatalities and rapidly rising coronavirus cases in other states such as Florida. “This is the fight of our lives… we have to leave all options on the table.”
He announced 524 new positive tests with a total of 170,584 across the state. The rate of transmission (Rt) is now .86, slightly down from yesterday.
“Everyone should go out and get tested…” the governor said, especially those who may be asymptomatic. He said that there were over 250 testing locations available for those who want to get tested, with two new testing opportunities at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Newark and City Line Church in Jersey City. Both locations are noon to 7pm and testing is free. “It gives us the much desperately needed data we need to make decisions regarding our restart and recovery.”
The number of patients in ICU were 234 and that ventilator use was down. There were 59 new admissions. “We remain in a good place in the key metrics we follow,” the governor announced. Murphy said that we need “the rolling seven day averages, which are essential to look at… we continue to see our standing improve among all other states,” but that as other states have rising cases, NJ must remain vigilant for the “overall health of our communities” by practicing social distancing and wearing face coverings.
In total, 13,060 New Jerseyans have died from COVID-19.
Murphy also recognized that today marks the 5th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision which legalized LBGT marriage. “New Jersey had been at the front of this decision,” Murphy said, “but this meant that right could not ever be taken away.”
He also recognized the 1969 Stonewall Inn riot and the 50th anniversary of the first Pride March. He said that while there would be no marches, residents could still celebrate their LBGT citizens. “Our administration continues its work alongside the community,” to collect data regarding COVID but also HIV.
“Tomorrow is National HIV Get Tested Day,” he said, saying that everyone should know their status, but also get tested for coronavirus as well. It could be “the difference between life and death for yourself or someone you love… keep New Jersey healthy.”
Commissioner of Education Dr. Lamont Repollet said he was pleased to announce the strategic road map for resuming in person instruction in September. He said that he and his staff had been in touch with over 50 organizations and large numbers of people from around the state to gathering their insights and create a comprehensive plan. He thanked everyone who lent their time and expertise. He echoed Murphy in saying that data determines dates, and that they would continue to monitor their progress towards “the new normal.”
School buildings will open in some capacity in September. They will have necessary limitations to protect students and staff. He also said that if there is a spike in cases, districts would need to have plans to close again. The statewide minimum standards would ensure that districts can plan for their reopening that addresses local needs and circumstances. The focus areas “reflect national expertise” including the social and emotional factors which impact teachers’ ability to teach and students’ ability to learn with factors affected by coronavirus.
Districts must also adopt a policy to screen students and staff. “If schools are not able to maintain physical distance, modifications should be in place,” including putting barriers between desks and other methods. Those in school must wear face coverings and students are required to do so if social distancing cannot be maintained.
Leadership and planning areas of the guidance package look at creating restart committees to make procedures for their reopening, including administrators, board members, local association representatives, parents, and students. He also called for pandemic response teams in each school district representing a diverse cross section of the community.
Recommendations were also made for staff and faculty on operational needs, saying that the future may look “drastically different.”
All school districts have applied for new funding, Repollet reported, and over 600 were approved. The first checks would be sent out next week for state moneys to meet needs brought on by coronavirus.
He said that virtual learning created challenges for faculty and students and addressed points concerning equity of access, saying that the pandemic has shined a spotlight on technology gaps in the state. “Our plan provides guidance on maximizing resources and opportunities to connect students with devices and broadband.”
Repollet asserted that the NJ Department of Education would stand ready to assist local school districts and that in the coming days they would be engaging with superintendents to prepare for the new school year.
Dr. Robert Zywicki, Superintendent of the Mount Olive school district next spoke, saying his district had explored framework and models of districts in other states and other countries to help design educational solutions.
He said that they laid out several theoretical options. The first option is “September 2019” the traditional school year with no major adjustments, noting this was highly unlikely and ultimately determined that this would not be possible. Second was a physical return to school with strict social distancing with face coverings and a restructure of lunches and busing. The third was a hybridized schedule with some in person and some virtually. The fourth option was to continue virtual learning with enhancements from the guidance provided from the state. The options were then re-examined by committees. The preliminary draft plan was sent through local government, health department, and police, then to the public.
He said that the plans were “reasonable and achievable” and that parallel conversations brought about similar conclusions from his local level as well as the state level for moving forward in the new school year.
He noted that the health situation could change and that it might be necessary to return to virtual learning “at any time.”
Health Commissioner Dr. Judith Persichilli next spoke, saying that as residents must be vigilant about COVID 19 they must also continue to take steps to reduce HIV, starting with getting tested. She noted that HIV tests should be part of healthcare providers’ routine practice. Nearly 65,000 free HIV tests were delivered last year and the process itself takes about twenty minutes. More than 38,000 New Jerseyans are living with HIV and there has been a significant decline over the years.
The Department of Health has been attempting to gather more data to “fully understand the impact of health disparities affecting the LBGTQ population.”
She reported that the daily NJ positivity as of June 22 is 2.1%: North 1.66%; Central 1.81%; South 3.83%.
State Police Colonel Patrick Callahan delivered his report, saying there was one EO violation, the second given to a Linden gym owner.
The governor said there was a White House call on Monday scheduled with a resumption of his usual briefing at 2pm that day.
The Education Commissioner was asked if he should expect more outdoor classrooms, and if parents would be given the chance to opt out of in-person instruction. Repollet said that there would be opportunities for that as well as remote learning, hoping that districts would not penalize families opting for virtual learning.
“Everyone has to understand we can’t predict the future,” Murphy said. He said that families should, at least mentally, formulate options in the event of changes ahead.
When asked how districts would fund the additional expenses associated with reopening in compliance with the guidance, Murphy repeated his call that that “we desperately need federal cash” as well as the ability to borrow. “We have to keep all revenue options on the table as well,” he said, referring to Speaker Coughlin’s suggestion that there may be a need to raise New Jersey taxes.
When questioned as to whether or not leaving districts with significant planning discretion could exacerbate inequities between demographics, Murphy said that home rule was both “the death of us” and our pride, turning the matter to Dr. Repollet. “The guidance was designed with equity in mind,” Repollet said, referring to ways districts can be funding and resources as needed from various outlets.
Repollet was asked if he had an updated figure on students in need of virtual learning technology. He said that they were still gathering information and surveying to get an accurate count.
Murphy said that the economic impact has been matched only by the Great Depression and the US Civil War, repeating his call anew for direct federal cash assistance and bonding to meet needs such as technology deficits for students.
The governor said that there had been a discussion with the postal service since some Mercer County voters said their mail in ballots were returned to them. The cause was determined to be because of address scanners reading the return versus the delivery address.
Murphy concluded his conference by donning a mask and expressing his thanks.