New Jersey parents seek a virtual option for school this year despite gov’s ‘unequivocal’ decision

Students wearing face masks line up to enter Christa McAuliffe School

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

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A group of New Jersey parents who want Gov. Phil Murphy to keep the remote learning option available has collected 11,000 signatures for a petition they hope to send him soon.

New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice want a virtual option for families with kids and/or adults that are “medically fragile” and would be particularly vulnerable to the highly transmissible delta variant.

“It could be whether you have a child with an underlying medical condition or a family member,” said Deborah Odore, co-founder of the group. “It is your right and your choice whether or not you want to send your child to school in person during a pandemic that is affecting children.”

Odore has two children in the Bridgewater-Raritan School District in Somerset County. Her 10-year-old son is in the autism program and has underlying medical issues. She said if there is no virtual option, she will home-school her kids, but that is not an easy decision to make. Odore explains that her son would lose all of the resources needed to assist him.

“Then you have to fight when you want to get them back into public school again for all of those services,” she explained. “We should not have to go without services for our child just to make sure our child’s being kept safe.”

Deanna Nye, another co-founder of the group, has three children: a 14-year-old boy and 9-year-old fraternal twins in the same school district. A home instruction plan was approved for her kids which, she says, will keep her from unenrolling her kids and losing services needed for her sons.

“I’m probably going to have to see if I could find a tutor,” she said. “While [two hours a day] may be good for my youngest son, who is very challenged, that may not be good enough for the other two children.”

Nye adds that a return to in-person learning is not ideal for many families due to the varying medical conditions of some kids and adults.

“We’re going to send them into a sardine can, for what to happen,” she asked. “Schools are filled with germs and there are many families that cannot wear masks.”

As of July, the governor said he was not changing his mind in his unequivocal decision that schools start on-time and in-person with no virtual option. He cited a consensus of educators and researchers that said in-person learning was best for children.

According to the state Department of Education, schools cannot provide daily remote learning except in limited circumstances, like an Individualized Education Program. The department recently issued guidance to schools on how to educate students who meet criteria for the state’s COVID-19 exclusion list and are not able to attend class.

The state is required to provide instruction to students who cannot be in class due to being quarantined or a temporary health condition.

Remote learning will be permitted if there is a localized outbreak or other emergency.

But the delta variant is complicating planning for officials. It is more than twice as contagious as earlier forms of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There has been an increase in the number of cases among children with the variant. In the last week, there were more than 121,000 COVID-19 cases involving children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). There is also a 5% increase nationally in the number of child COVID-19 cases for the first couple of weeks in August.

AAP and the CDC both recommended universal mask-wearing in schools, regardless of vaccination status. Murphy instituted a mask mandate for school buildings earlier this month due to the delta variant and the lack of a vaccine for those 11 and younger.

New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice hopes that Murphy will change his mind, like he did about his original decision to leave masking rules up to the school districts, or even last year, when Murphy did an about-face on virtual learning as school districts decided that they could not do in-person learning.

During Murphy’s monthly call-in program on News 12 in June, Karen Strauss, another co-founder of the group, asked Murphy if he would meet with them to discuss a virtual option for kids who are immunocompromised.

“Karen, very happy to meet, but not inclined to go there,” the governor said. “If there’s a possibility that we’re putting a student, a child, an educator, or staff member’s life at risk, we’re not going to do that.” Murphy went on to say that a virtual option is “not likely to happen” for people who “just like virtual versus in-person.”

“There’s going to have to be a high bar, real health reason,” he added.

According to Odore and Nye, they have not heard from the governor’s office.

“He has not reached out to us. We keep reaching out to him,” said Odore. “We have not heard anything back from him whatsoever.”

WHYY News has asked the governor’s office if Murphy plans on talking with the group, but has not heard back.

The group said they do not want to take away the opportunity for in-person learning, but they would like an option for those who are most vulnerable during the pandemic.

Nye said while many people weren’t happy with Murphy’s shutdown orders last year, it was done for the safety of others. Now, she contends, the governor “just thrown the vulnerable in a toilet.”

“He really needs to think about this,” she said as she recalls stories from southern states about COVID outbreaks in schools. “They just all started school in July and look at the numbers.”

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