On Thursday, the Jersey City School Board unanimously approved Superintendent Franklin Walker’s five-phase plan to re-open schools in September with teachers teaching remote, virtual classes in phase one.

Effective Monday, August 17, all full-time (12-month) employees including custodians, office staff, and security personnel will report to work in person on a regular five-day schedule to begin cleaning the Jersey City Board of Education’s 45 buildings in preparation for the school year.

Teachers will report back to the classroom on Tuesday, September 8, and will begin teaching virtual classes from their classrooms to all students scheduled to report on Thursday, September 10. During that month, Superintendent Walker, the school board, and teachers will assess the safety of in-person classes with available scientific data. Until then, virtual classes will be the norm until it is safe for children to be back in the classroom.

“We all have an obligation to prepare to educate our children,” Superintendent Walker said.    “I want to make sure we have those dates clear as we continue to deal with the challenges that have been created by this pandemic.”

Superintendent Walker and the Jersey City Board of Education seem to be in line with much of the rest of the country where, according to a study published Tuesday by Burbio on CNBC.com, half of all elementary and high school students in the U.S. will be taught virtually only this fall. The study found that 52 percent will go to school virtually and 25 percent will attend every day. The remaining 19 percent will have some form of hybrid schooling, combining online and in-person learning. (Four percent of districts remain undecided.)

“Over the last few weeks we have seen a resurgence with the pandemic across the United States, especially in states which rushed to open after the initial shutdown in March and April without a clear reopening plan,” Superintendent Walker said. “We are seeing daily positive cases averaging 750,000 across America with 15,000 deaths daily. As of today, we have close to 5 million Covid-19 cases in America with 150,000 souls lost. Schools have reopened per their regular reopening calendar in some of the southern states like Georgia, and we are receiving very troubling news of dangerous spikes in cases in school among children and employees.”

To make his point, Superintendent Walker offered examples from the U.S. and abroad. Florida reported that 35 percent of children tested were positive. Israel, “which did a great job in the first phase of containment” saw its positive cases spiral out of control after schools reopened. Superintendent Walker said. “New Jersey has done a great job in the containment and a great job in the reopening of New Jersey, that is until recently,” Mr. Walker continued.

On Tuesday, according to CBS.com, more than 400 teachers in Elizabeth refused to teach in-person classes because of health concerns. In a recent response to the spikes in coronavirus infection, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy revised the June 26 guidelines presented in the New Jersey Board of Education’s “Restart and Recovery Plan: The Road Back” to reopen schools and said he will announce plans to facilitate remote learning as an option.

“We have seen our cases flatline or plateau, but unfortunately in recent days the governor has alerted us that our rate of transmission has spiked, nearing the 1.5 level,” Superintendent Walker said. “We have seen spikes in cases prompting the governor to roll back some of the reopening plans. In light of all these recent developments across the nation and what we’re seeing internationally, in addition to continued restrictions on indoor assembly in New Jersey, I cannot in good faith ask our employees and children to return to a full in-person schedule after Labor Day.”

Instead, Superintendent Walker’s  reopening plan is a five-phase timeline that begins with 100 percent virtual learning in phase one and ends with all 30,000 Jersey City public school children back in the classroom in phase five. The Board of Education has undertaken multiple surveys with teachers and parents, Superintendent Walker said, and it is clear “a majority of our parents prefer to start the year with virtual learning, which is what we’ll do”.

In a recent parent survey, 9,700 responded with 52.8 percent indicating they would not send their children back for in-person instruction and 42 percent saying they would. An overwhelming 76 percent of parents said they would not allow their child to ride a bus.

In the public comments part of the meeting, more than 40 parents called in to speak directly to the board, mostly in support of phase one’s remote learning.

Parent Tiffany Kane said she was all set to urge the board to remain in phase one and was pleased that the board was in full support of the measure.

“I do appreciate the board’s sentiment to keep us home as well,” Kane said. “I believe it is the safest place for us to be right now.”

Maria Enriquez, a parent of four in the Jersey City Public Schools and a special education teacher, echoed Ms. Kane’s comments.

“I have four kids in public school,” Enriquez said. “There is so much to be done for school buildings to be safe. My children will go back to school buildings but only when its safe.”

Parents are in a wait-and-see mode, Superintendent Walker said.

“Even though we have precautions in place, there are a lot of anxieties that exist,” Superintendent Walker said. “The plan that we have in place is a productive robust plan that can work. We will all work in tandem to ensure we will open responsibly and transition to in-person learning in phases as the science data supports it. The district understands the magnitude of the ongoing situation and will undertake efforts to support our children with proper nutrition during this pandemic phase as we have been doing these past five months. We will also undertake additional steps to see how we can support our children with counseling or any support service that can be delivered remotely.”

The Board of Education plans to ensure all Jersey City public school children have the required electronic devices and internet access for virtual learning during the pandemic.

“The health of our children, teachers, and employees come first,” Superintendent Walker said. “We will navigate and adapt and do everything to ensure a thorough and efficient education for our children and support them with additional services during this very tough time.”

Jersey City Public School’s Reopening Plan for 2020-2021 features five phases:  phase one: fully remote learning; phase two: limited in-person learning for a small group of students; phase three: easing restriction with more students receiving in-person learning; phase four: most students return to in-person learning with some exceptions for remote learning; and phase five: in-person learning for all students with limited safety restrictions.

Teachers will teach from their classrooms, Superintendent Walker said, in order to have the proper resources. They will be socially distanced and every precaution will be provided to ensure their safety. Surveying teachers, 86 percent said they would return to work; 14 percent said they would not return based on health conditions.

“We don’t know at this point in time when we will be able to implement in a safe and secure way phase two,” Superintendent Walker said. “Phase two is based on the hybrid model, in-person instruction and remote, and a group that will be all virtual. We open in phase one and reassess after the first month and make a determination after the first month.”

Trustee Marilyn Roman said: “This is a good plan, the kind of plan the state wants to see.”

The next virtual school board meeting will be held Thursday, Aug. 27, at 6 p.m.

Born and raised in Jersey City, Sally Deering spent 13 years as a features writer and columnist for The Jersey Journal. Syndicated by the Newhouse News Service, Sally’s weekly column ran in papers throughout...

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