Gov. Philip D. Murphy is expected to give New Jersey districts the option to offer all-virtual classes when school resumes next month, relaxing his original requirement that teachers provide some form of in-person classroom instruction.
The decision, which an aide said he would announce Wednesday afternoon, comes as the state’s powerful teachers union called publicly for the first time for an all-virtual start to the school year.
It also follows public declarations by two of New Jersey’s largest urban districts, Jersey City and Elizabeth, to offer only virtual instruction — plans that were in direct conflict with the governor’s original position and would have required approval from the state.
The teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, a close ally of Mr. Murphy, had raised concerns about the safety of holding in-person classes, but had only tiptoed to the edge of publicly calling for all-virtual instruction.
But late Tuesday, in a joint statement with groups representing principals and administrators, the union criticized the state’s lack of uniform school safety guidelines and called for all-remote instruction to protect its members and students from the risk of contracting the coronavirus.
“The facts are not in our favor,” the education leaders wrote. “Our nation is in the middle of an uncontrolled pandemic. Our state, while doing better than many others, has not yet stopped the spread of this virus, particularly among the same young people who are scheduled to return to school in under four weeks.
“New Jersey’s communities are still at risk, and putting students and staff inside school buildings, even with exceptional precautions, increases that risk.”
The boards of education in Jersey City and Elizabeth each voted in the last week to start school with only virtual instruction. The densely populated city of Bayonne, in Hudson County, also submitted a plan that called for all-virtual instruction.
The mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka, another close ally of the governor, had publicly urged parents not to send their children to school, citing the increased risk of spreading the virus.
“At this rate that we’re going,” Mr. Baraka, a former high school principal, said on Aug. 3, “I would advise everybody to keep their children home from school.”
He repeated the sentiment five more times.
In late June, Mr. Murphy released a 104-page plan that required schools to offer some form of in-person instruction. Weeks later, he said that parents could choose to not send their children to school, and that districts must offer those students all-virtual instruction.
He now is expected to permit some districts that need flexibility to operate remotely “until it is safe to return to in-person learning,” said an official with knowledge of the decision, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly. Additional details were expected to be released at a 1 p.m. news briefing.
On Monday night, the board of education in Elizabeth, the state’s fourth-largest city with 28,300 students, said it had no choice but to offer only virtual instruction because it did not have enough teachers to staff its classrooms.
As of Tuesday afternoon, a spokesman said that 402 Elizabeth teachers — one in five instructional staff members — had provided doctors’ notes and documentation asserting that they could not teach in person based on their own underlying health conditions or those of someone they lived with.
The lack of sufficient staff members meant that in-person instruction was “just no longer a practical reality,” said Pat Politano, a spokesman for the Elizabeth schools.
The moves by officials in urban districts had presented a challenge for a governor who had in part framed the argument about why some in-person learning was essential as an issue of equity for students who rely on school for access to computers and basic nutrition.
New Jersey is home to some of the top-rated schools in the nation. But it is equally well known for the economic gaps that exist between its working-class and poor cities and its more affluent suburbs, where parents may be better able to cope with the expense and rigor of remote learning.
Jersey City’s board of education voted last week to offer only virtual instruction. The mayor, Steven M. Fulop, cited the state’s lack of access to speedy coronavirus test results, the absence of a robust contact-tracing network and shortages of cleaning supplies as reasons for the decision.
“There’s limited resources around testing,” Mr. Fulop said in an interview on Tuesday. “There’s slow response time, and there continues to be a lack of resources around cleaning supplies and sanitation enough to make us feel comfortable.”
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