By MIKE CATALINI Associated Press
TRENTON (AP) — New Jersey schools will remain closed for the rest of the academic year due to the coronavirus outbreak, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday.
Teachers will be required to continue conducting online instruction, which schools have been doing since they shuttered in mid-March.
"I had hoped we could get back to a sense of normal by allowing our children to return to the schools they love and to be with their friends and classmates," Murphy said. "But the reality is we cannot safely reopen our schools to provide students and families, or faculty and staff, the confidence needed to allow for a return to in-person instruction."
Private schools with later academic years are closed until at least June 30, Murphy said. Spring sports will also be canceled for the remainder of the year, the Democratic governor said.
State officials will meet with parents and other stakeholders to consider summer courses, as well as to discuss the 2020-2021 school year, he added.
"There's a lot to consider about how the school year may differ once our students and faculty return," he said during Monday's news conference.
The news came the same day Murphy reported 45 new deaths from the virus, the lowest rate since last month, though he said it could be the result of a network outage and not a sharp downturn.
New Jersey is among the hardest-hit states in the country with a total of 7,910 coronavirus-related deaths. Murphy said there were about 1,600 new positive cases, totaling nearly 128,000 since the outbreak started.
The state is seeking $310 million in federal assistance, Murphy announced. At least $280 million would go to schools to cover the cost of buying educational technology, cleaning buildings and getting support services for students.
Teachers acknowledged the step had to be taken to maintain the health of students.
Bill Smith, a history teacher at Southern Regional High School in Stafford Township who has been teaching remotely as well as hosting lessons on TV, said health and safety were "paramount." He said teachers would continue to innovate.
"I think the best thing we can do right now as teachers is be there for our students. I've known the class of 2020 since they were 12 years old. I taught many of them as seventh graders, and then had the opportunity to teach them again as high school students. I've reached out to several of them today," he said.
The state's biggest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, which has been a prominent political supporter of Murphy's, praised the governor's decision.
But NJEA President Marie Blistan said in a statement that even the best remote education is not a substitute for in-person instruction. She said the state would have to work on recovering "what has been lost" by closing school buildings.
New Jersey has some 600 school districts and about 1.4 million students enrolled, according to the state Education Department.
Murphy did not indicate when he would allow the state’s local beaches to reopen, but did say he was encouraged by the behavior of beachgoers at Island Beach State Park over the weekend. Like other state parks that reopened Saturday, Island Beach limited admissions to 50% of the park’s capacity.
Murphy said such a limit on the number of vehicles allowed to park in lots near beaches, or a 50% reduction in the amount of daily beach badges normally sold might be one way for local towns to responsibly reopen their beaches this summer.
The governor also reiterated that shore towns cannot legally restrict admission to residents-only, and said legal guidance to shore towns will be forthcoming. At least four Jersey Shore towns have reopened their beaches only to residents.
Murphy on Monday also vetoed a handful of bills that would have set aside millions to help with the outbreak in the state. He cited the state's strapped budget.
One measure would have appropriated $20 million as part of a temporary lost wage unemployment program that would have let certain people claim lost wages because of the virus. Another bill called for spending $10 million for sanitation at health care and other facilities. A third bill appropriated $15 million in grants for food banks.