While most New Jersey school districts plan on a hybrid in-person/virtual schedule for the start of school in September, two districts in particular are headed in opposite directions.

Lakewood school officials expect students to all return fully to the classroom in September. But in Bayonne, remote learning will continue at least for the start of fall.

Gov. Phil Murphy's goal when introducing guidelines for districts to use as they developed their fall plan was to give districts a wide berth and to be able to take into account the concerns of their own communities.

After it became clear that many parents and teachers have reservations about  physically being in classrooms, state officials amended the guidelines in order to require an all-virtual option for families that request it.

"The Department of Education is releasing this guidance to make clear that this option should be allowed by school districts as part of their reopening plans," Murphy said olast week. "We have heard from numerous parents and families who have asked for this, and we have heard them loud and clear."

The CDC in new guidelines issued last week echoed the desire of the Trump administration by encouraging a full return to school.

"It is critically important for our public health to open schools this fall," CDC Director Robert Redfield said on Twitter.

The Lakewood school district is taking that advice to heart and plans on a full return to classrooms with no hybrid plan of virtual and in-person instruction.

Michael I. Inzelbuch, the attorney for the district, told New Jersey 101.5 that parents and guardians have overwhelmingly stated in surveys that they want their children in school.

About 98% of the district's 1,000 employees who responded to the survey said that they were not planning on taking an unpaid leave of absence when school opens in September if they fell into a high-risk category for COVID-19.

The demographics of the district are big factor in the decision for a full return to in-person instruction, according to Inzelbuch.

He said schools Superintendent Laura Winters has met with families, the Lakewood Education Association, members of the business community and representatives from the Latino and Jewish communities.

"Our parents don't have the ability or luxury or courtesy of not going to work and getting paid," he said. "Many people, lucky for them, don't go to work can still use sick days or vacation days. Our parents primarily are working day-labor jobs, construction jobs, cleaning-home jobs. You don't come to work, you don't get paid."

Inzelbuch said 95% of the district's students are minorities. It is the only district in Ocean County with 100% participation in the free-and-reduced price lunch program.

"We have a lot of unique challenges no where else in Ocean County and very few in the state have. Most of our families are not native English speakers. That presents a slew of problems we've seen from March until June when you're doing Zoom," Inzelbuch said.

Inzelbuch said that in-person programs are nothing new for the Lakewood school district.

"Just like it was for extended school year, which is going on now for special ed kids, just like it it is for its summer recreation program, we are the only district in Ocean County who has the multiple levels and programming in-person for kids in the summer. It's also continuing what we've done since May, which is evaluating children, special-needs children, English language learner children," Inzelbuch said.

Unlike Lakewood, Bayonne announced it will primarily offer an all-viral reopening plan.

"We believe this plan is the safest course for all of our students, their families, our community and our employees," schools Superintendent John J. Niesz said in a message to the district.

Niesz said if the virtual plan is not approved, they would submit a hybrid plan of rotating live instruction and virtual instruction every two days.

All plans for reopening must be submitted to the state Board of Education for approval four weeks before the first day of school.

In Lakewood, free rapid COVID-19 testing will be available for students and staff although it's not a requirement.

"We called up CHEMED Health Center and OHI and asked them and they said 'we'll do it.' They've already tested during our summer program about 300 kids, parents, staff at no cost to the district," Inzelbuch said.

In order to maintain its COVID-19 compliance, the district is purchasing washable face coverings, gloves and face shields for students and staff.  Plexiglas will be installed in certain offices and all students will sit with desks facing in the same direction.

The Lakewood Education Association on Thursday morning did not respond to New Jersey 101.5's request for comment about the plan.

NJEA President Marie Blistan has said in several interviews that schools should not reopen in September. She told  told NorthJersey.com's Mike Kelly that there is not enough time for districts to put together a plan for a safe return to school in September.

Jersey City Deputy Superintendent Norma Fernandez the Jersey Journal that of a survey of the district's 3,000 teachers, more than 200 of the 1,649 returned responses said they may take a leave of absence because of personal or family health concerns. Fernandez said the answers do not represent a final course of action.

 

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ

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