Colleges will look and operate differently this year

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

By SHEILA NOONAN 

Students and faculty will be back on campus at many schools, wearing masks and separated by six feet, as social distancing mandates.

College administrators, faculty, staff and students have a clearer view of what the return to New Jersey campuses will entail with guidance issued Wednesday by the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education.

Beginning July 1, higher education institutions will be allowed to resume in-person clinical, lab and hands-on sessions — as long as officials have approved their plans to restart instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic. Career and technical schools will also be able to restart July 1 with approved plans from their oversight agencies.

The restart moves came in a new executive order from Gov. Phil Murphy.

“As we move forward in our restart and recovery, these institutions will play a huge role,” Murphy said. “They are where our future workforce is being created, and where many of the advances in the life sciences, in engineering, and in other areas that will have a tremendous impact on our larger economy are taking shape.”

The guidance to schools from the state “attempts to strike a balance between public health considerations and the safe resumption of activities,” Zakiya Smith Ellis, secretary of higher education, said at Wednesday’s daily coronavirus news briefing.

It was developed with input from college administrators, students, faculty and staff, including organized labor, she said. It focuses on 10 areas: instruction, housing, computer labs, libraries, research and labs, student services, transportation, dining, study abroad and athletics.

Colleges and universities are required to submit restart plans for joint review by the OSHE and the Department of Health at least 14 days before staff or students return to campus. Approved plans must be made public by the colleges so parents and students can make informed decisions, Smith Ellis said, and all orientation sessions will include COVID-19 information.

Students with COVID-19 symptoms or a positive diagnosis will be able to learn remotely. The same applies to faculty who test positive or appear symptomatic.

Some parts of OSHE’s 20+ page plan are mandatory — wearing masks indoors, social distancing of six feet and sanitizing equipment and materials. Other parts give colleges guidance, such as the number of people in a classroom, as instructional space varies from college to college and even within a campus. Smith Ellis anticipates that many higher education institutions will adopt a hybrid of in-person and remote learning because of the six-foot rule.

Early reaction from one New Jersey college was positive. A Montclair State University spokesperson said the school welcomed Wednesday’s announcement, noting, “We have had an advisory committee working on a plan to bring students and employees back to campus as safely as possible. We will review that plan in light of the forthcoming guidance from OSHE and finalize it as soon as possible.”

Also Wednesday, Montclair State announced its fall semester will start and end a week early, with students and faculty not returning to campus after Thanksgiving break. All remaining coursework, assignments and exams will be completed remotely to decrease the population density on campus around the time of year when respiratory viruses, including the coronavirus, typically become more active, the spokesperson said.

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