School reopening plans may be put on hold due to a rise in COVID mutations.

Everyone agrees the best place for a child to learn is in a classroom, but just as more schools were planning at least some in-person learning, there are signals the current spike in COVID cases could put that on hold.

The number of schools offering all remote instruction has been steadily dropping and, as of this week, fewer than 100 districts were all virtual. Slowest to come back were schools mostly in populous urban areas where infection rates were highest and aging school buildings lacked the spaced for proper social distancing.

Gov. Phil Murphy has been trying to speed reopening by adopting CDC guidelines that reduce social distancing from 6 to 3 feet in schools. Many districts have also been holding special vaccination clinics for teachers and school staff.

It was an encouraging sign when some of New Jersey's largest districts, including Newark and Jersey City, announced plans to return kids to classrooms before the end of the current school year. On Monday, Paterson announced plans for a return to class. Superintendent Eileen Shafer detailed layers of protection to ensure the safety of nearly 30,000 students and staff for a return to school May 3.

Just two days after Shafer's announcement, she abruptly reversed course and said Paterson will remain on an all-remote schedule "until further notice." Shafer and the school board cited rising infection rates as the reason. The teachers union, however, had also opposed the reopening plan saying buildings were not safe for a return.

Districts across New Jersey have been under tremendous pressure from parents and the Murphy administration to get kids back in class as soon as possible. School superintendents have been struggling to balance the needs of parents and students with safety concerns often raised by local teachers union.

During our latest New Jersey 101.5 Town Hall "A Year with COVID," Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, acknowledged the struggles and frustrations of New Jersey parents and recognized that education effects industry. A lack of consistency from district to district adds to frustrations.

“I think the inconsistency from community to community has created problems because people can look across the border and see what’s happening that they may prefer, in-person attendance for example,” Bozza said.

Gov. Phil Murphy has left the decision of each district’s status to chief school administrators, who have had to consult with local health officials to make decisions based on local data.

Murphy has made no secret of his desire to have more kids in classrooms before the end of this year, and vowed every school would be open for full-time, in-person, instruction when the new school year begins in the Fall. However, with his administration releasing projections that show COVID infections reaching as high as 8,000 new cases per day in the weeks ahead, more school districts may back off plans to resume classes this year.

The rising number of cases also put in jeopardy another season of varsity sports and activities as well as plans for in-person graduation.

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