New Jersey schools will have the option to pursue all-remote learning for the start of the school year.

Gov. Phil Murphy made the announcement on Monday, July 20, as school districts try to decide how to start the new school year with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging and no vaccine in sight.

Murphy said that not all of the details are finalized, but that the Department of Education would be releasing more information later this week.

“Again, the details will be coming out later this week but we wanted everyone to know that we will allow for this step. We had a very good sort of ‘whole of government’ meeting. There are a lot of moving parts with this, and this being back to school, this is about as complex a step as we will take or any American state will take and we want to get it right. We want to do it responsibly. We want to respect public health, but we also want to do everything we can to try to recapture that magic of some semblance of in-person education that no state does like New Jersey,” Murphy said.

In Montclair, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds announced Friday that Montclair will allow families to have two options: online instruction, for families who did not feel comfortable sending their children back to a school building, and in-person instruction, for those who did. 

Ponds emphasized that the details for the specific plans are still being worked on. He also assured families that any family that wished to pursue virtual learning would not be judged for it. 

For in-person instruction, Ponds said that the district would work on enhancing and expanding the program, including allowing students to have more interaction with teachers.

The announcement set off a debate among parents and teachers on what was the best way to proceed. 

Some of the issues raised by families include safety in school buildings, health screenings, equitable access to technology, and child care for parents who could not be at home to supervise their children for online learning. 

In a letter to Montclair Local, Montclair resident Jonathan Rosenberg suggested that the school district expand by using large public buildings, such as the YMCA buildings and the Montclair Public Library, as learning hubs. He also suggested that Montclair High School go all-virtual, citing the difficulty of “batching” students with different schedules during the day. 

According to a survey sent out by the district this spring, many parents were not satisfied with the level of instruction that their students were receiving during lockdown. 

The district sent out a new survey on Friday, asking families for their input on how the schools should begin the new year. "This is a very fluid situation with data changing daily. We will adjust as necessary and survey you again in August to assure that we are accommodating all of our diverse needs," district officials said in the survey announcement.

Montclair’s schools have been physically closed since March 13, when staff met for a day of professional development on virtual instruction. That day was the last in-person day of the school year, since schools did not physically reopen again.

Across the United States, a number of school districts have made plans to continue offering online instruction, but with the hopes that they will be able to offer in-person instruction as well. 

Many states are waiting until late July or early August to begin releasing their plans for the new school year. 

Some states, like Virginia, have given districts the option of pursuing hybrid models of education, with both online and in-person classes being provided. On Monday, however, the superintendent for the Henrico County School District in central Virginia called for schools to begin the school year with all-virtual instruction. 

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for school districts in counties with high rates of COVID-19 to begin the school year with all-virtual instruction.