EWING – Decisions about whether to close a school for weeks due to the novel coronavirus remains one for school districts to make, as the state is not yet ordering it – and more and more schools are doing it.

All schools in Bergen County are closing for two weeks, switching over to distance or virtual learning, just as they are in Hoboken. Bayonne is closing through the end of March. The schools in Summit are closing for three weeks – after which comes spring break, meaning the buildings are closed for a month.

Although Gov. Phil Murphy is asking gatherings of 250 people or more to be canceled, that isn’t being applied to schools. More than 82% of the state’s more than 2,500 public schools have 250 students or more, but Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet says they can’t be assessed by their enrollment.

“So 250 students, we don’t have 250 kids in a classroom. We have them separated throughout the entire school,” Repollet said. “We are now currently looking at the students, based off of this social policy right now, looking at the students in cafeterias. We’ll be making recommendations (Friday) to our school districts to modify their schedule and to have lunch within the classrooms.”

As of noon Thursday, 207 school districts in New Jersey have closed for at least half a day due to the coronavirus, according to the Department of Education.

Most of those instances — 182 — were for professional development or staff training related to the virus and how to handle a potential long-term closure. Twelve were for precautionary cleaning. Nine were due to possible exposure to COVID-19 in the school community, three were for confirmed exposure to someone with the virus and one was for a confirmed positive case.

Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said school closures have been shown as effective way to reduce the spread of the flu and was used some places during H1N1 swine flu in 2009.

“So we will continue to monitor this situation on a daily basis and keep you informed as to our decisions on school closures,” Persichilli said.

Governors in Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico and Ohio have closed all schools statewide for two or three weeks.

Repollet said a task force of school superintendents is helping the state identify challenges around school closures. One key issue is internet access for virtual learning, and Repollet said there have been some innovative local solutions.

“For example, some districts looking to provide both internet-based and paper-based home instructional activities. Some schools can preload instructional materials on laptops that students can take home,” Repollet said.

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As the state and local districts evaluate whether to close schools, Repollet said they’re trying to be sensitive to parents’ child-care needs and students’ needs to access the internet and, in some cases, free lunch.

Repollet says some districts with limited virus exposure in their communities might continue to remain open for half days of school.

“So there’s a lot – everything is on the table. This is relatively new when it comes to our schools. We’re pretty much creating a new educational system,” he said.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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