N.J. parent group continues to press Murphy on virtual school option

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Students line up to enter Christa McAuliffe School while wearing masks

Students line up to enter Christa McAuliffe School in Jersey City, N.J., Thursday, April 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Nearly two months into the new school year, a group of New Jersey parents continues to push Gov. Phil Murphy to reconsider his decision to bar virtual learning options for public schools.

Murphy, citing the importance of in-classroom learning after remote education during the pandemic disrupted two school years, is committed to the “unless this virus takes a turn that is dramatic.”

New Jersey Parents for a Virtual Choice delivered a petition last week to the governor’s office in Trenton asking Murphy to reconsider allowing for a virtual option for kids who are either considered medically fragile or live with a family member at high risk of being infected with the coronavirus. According to the governor’s office, the petition is being reviewed.

The group has been seeking a meeting with the governor since June when Karen Strauss, one of the co-founders, called into News 12’s “Ask The Governor” program.

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“Karen, very happy to meet, but not inclined to go there,” Murphy said at the time, adding that there would have to be a “medical, high bar” for a child to be allowed to learn virtually.

The governor was asked in August whether he would follow up with the group. He was asked again at his COVID briefing on Monday whether he would meet with them.

“I don’t know that I personally committed to meeting with them, but I said that we would certainly meet with them,” Murphy said. “If people are reasonable, we meet with them, period. Even in some cases when they may be unreasonable.”

New Jersey is one of a few states nationally to either ban or strictly limit virtual learning, joining others including Missouri, Illinois, and North Carolina. New York City and several large districts in Florida have made similar prohibitions, but many districts in the country continue to offer virtual learning as an option, including Philadelphia and much of its suburbs.

School districts in New Jersey were allowed to offer a virtual option last year due to an executive order from Murphy, which has since been allowed to expire.

Strauss says that her group has yet to hear from Murphy’s office about the meeting request. However, they did get an audience with his Republican challenger in this year’s gubernatorial race, Jack Ciattarelli.

Ciattarelli is supportive of a virtual option for school, but has also come out against Murphy’s mask mandate for schools and vaccine mandate for teachers and school staff. He also said on a local talk show that “children are not vulnerable to this virus.”

Strauss said she disagreed with that part of Ciattarelli’s stance.

“You choosing to not wear a mask, you choosing not to get vaccinated does impact other people, the community, other kids in school, other staff members,” she said.

Two parents, two kindergartners, different situations

Strauss, who lives in Somerset County, has one child, Logan, who began kindergarten this year. She wanted him to attend class in person, however, he is considered high-risk to contract COVID-19.

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“He has asthma and he is only 5,” she said. “He’s had pneumonia, RSV, bronchitis; you name it, he’s had it.”

In New Jersey, schools can only provide remote daily instruction under limited circumstances, including it being required under a student’s individual education plan.

That’s how Strauss was able to get home instruction for Logan.

“I did have to fight for it a little bit, but we were very fortunate,” she said.

In Cherry Hill, Rachel Layton’s son Mason also began kindergarten this year. She was relieved when Gov. Murphy announced earlier this year that schools would open on time with in-person instruction.

“Being 6 years old and starting kindergarten for the first time in a new school with new people is already nerve-wracking for kids,” she said.

Layton, who is also a teacher, is among the majority who prefer that schools offer in-person instruction, but she’s empathetic to parents like Strauss.

“I feel like virtual should be an option for people who need it,” she said.

But her experience in schools makes her skeptical of its success. She’s seen teacher shortages in her school and she doesn’t see how current staffing levels could provide a quality education for virtual learners.

“We don’t have enough people. People can’t do online and in-person at the same time,” she said.

The New Jersey Education Association also supported Murphy’s decision to reopen schools for in-person instruction.

“When our school buildings are safe, in-person instruction with their peers and educators is the best educational option for students, with very rare exceptions,” said Steven Baker, NJEA’s communications director. “Districts have always had to deal with the specific health needs of individual students and no doubt will continue to do so.”

The union, which supports districts transitioning to virtual “to protect the health and safety of students,” was also given a copy of the petition from New Jersey Parents for a Virtual Choice.

Although she was not teaching last school year, Layton heard from her colleagues about frustrating experiences with virtual learning.

“I have a lot of friends who were incredibly, incredibly stressed and incredibly disheartened — just beside themselves with trying to manage life,” she said.

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