Three New Jersey education organizations issued a joint statement Tuesday urging Gov. Phil Murphy to order all school districts to start the school year remotely because they believe a return to school buildings is not safe in the face of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

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Murphy is expected today to announce districts will have the option of all-remote learning this fall — reversing course on his previous stance that they should all have some level of in-person education. The joint statement came before news of that development broke.

Murphy had previously directed every school district in the state to submit a plan for reopening classes in accordance with guidance issued by the state Department of Education that must include an option for all virtual learning. He had resisted the previous argument made by the New Jersey Education Association — the state's teachers union — that school buildings cannot safely be reopened.

Murphy has said that keeping students home creates financial hardship for some families.

"Some folks just need to rely on in-person schooling a lot more than others," Murphy said at his coronavirus media briefing on Aug. 5. "And so figuring out how to make that work, including the folks who are dual income, have to both go out and work and making sure that that can be allowed in the confines of their home is something – we’ll look at that district by district."

The New Jersey Association of School Administrators, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association and the New Jersey Education Association in the letter doubled down on the NJEA's warnings, and said he issue should not be decided by individual districts.

“The stakes are too high, and the consequences of a wrong decision are too grave,” they wrote in their statement, adding that they support a return to classroom instruction “as soon as the science and data say we can do so responsibly and when the resources are available in our school buildings to do it safely.”

Making a decision now would free districts up to focus on "building the most effective remote learning plans possible," according to the letter.

The letter cites districts around the country in which students went to school for a few days only to switch to all online learning after an outbreak.

“We have repeatedly asked for universal statewide health standards, which have not been provided. Despite the tireless efforts of all school stakeholders, districts have struggled to meet even the minimum standards that were provided. Inadequate levels of funding, staffing, equipment and facilities will result in inequities in the level of safety afforded to all New Jersey students," the letter says.

The governor's office on Wednesday morning did not immediately respond to New Jersey 101.5's request for a comment about the letter.

Most districts have opted for plans that include hybrid schedules where students spend several half days a week in school and learn virtually the others.

After 402 teachers said they will not be back for the new school year because of  coronavirus fears, Elizabeth schools superintendent Olga Hugelmeyer said in a letter there would be "insufficient staff to open safely" and would open on an all virtual plan.

Lakewood Public Schools announced plans to open with full five-day-a-week classroom instruction. The district has released several photos showing classrooms at the Oak Street Elementary School, Lakewood Middle School, Clifton Avenue Elementary and Lakewood High School being outfitted with plexiglass dividers

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

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