Since the strike of the pandemic in March of 2020, much of regular life has resumed to normal now over a year later. Through the masks and safety precautions, shops and businesses have reopened, and once empty streets and sidewalks have resumed the busy fullness of daily life. Schools countrywide have also returned to a more familiar environment as students and faculty members have slowly transitioned from a fully virtual classroom to a hybridized system of learning. However, New Jersey Governor Murphy announced the retraction of a virtual learning option by enacting a plan to return students into school building full time starting next school year.
According to the Social Network News, Governor Murphy announced that virtual learning alternatives across New Jersey will be eliminated this coming school year of 2021-2022. When asked about the prospects of upholding virtual learning following the close of the 2020-2021 school year, Murphy responded with a definitive “no.” “As we are sitting here now, no, I want to be unequivocal about this…. We are expecting Monday through Friday in-person every school, every district. Obviously, if the world goes sideways, we have to revisit that, but as of this sitting, the answer is no.”
Districts across New Jersey now anticipate a complete return to in-person schooling this September, following Murphy’s observations of the successful transitions from fully virtual learning to hybridized learning. “The strong safety protocols to help prevent in-school spread that have been in place since August will remain in place… because, overall, they have been quite successful.” As vaccines have slowly opened its availability to younger age groups, Murphy hopes that by the time the next school year rolls around, most students and faculty members will be vaccinated and well-equipped against the virus, creating a safer school environment.
Although the coming year remains uncertain, 6abc Action News confirms that Murphy is certain of this: “Now is the time for all of our schools to meaningfully move forward with a return to in-person instruction, whether it be full-time or through a hybrid schedule.” As of right now, it seems that New Jersey schools and districts are on the track towards a full reopening this fall, which is a huge leap forward from the hybrid-virtual learning systems that most schools have already adopted.
While Tenafly High School has remained open for in-person learning throughout the entirety of 2020-2021’s school year, this plan will call for drastic changes. As of this spring’s school year, in-person students attend physical schools four days a week from 8:05 a.m. to 1:04 p.m. And while the initiation of the second phase of THS’s reopening has drawn many students into the school’s building, many remain at home, attending classes virtually via Zoom.
“As a freshman in college in August, I look forward to being able to take my courses in person and thus enjoy my first year,” Seren Park (’21) said. “I know that many colleges are requiring and offering vaccinations to their student body in order for this to happen. It would be great if we could eliminate virtual learning in favor of in-person learning next year.” Murphy’s new plan promises a school year closely resembling pre-Covid school life, offering students the same hopes and opportunities as those that would have been offered in any normal year. But despite the hopes of moving onward following the delay of the last year, downsides to the plan coexist with its ambitious leap forward. “[However,]” Park adds, “I don’t agree that the opinions of parents, teachers, or students should be ignored.”
Many students anticipate the much needed return to the regular routine of school, and the prospects of being able to enjoy a somewhat normal year. “Personally, I think it’ll make in-person school a lot more enjoyable and help bring us back to the way school should be,” Lucy Harper (’22) said. “I think it’s important for us to start learning in person again and, [as] a senior, it’s exciting to think that we might be back to some normalcy!” This change was sure to come, and many students have found immense comfort in resuming normal life through the mass distribution of the Covid vaccine. “I think that Murphy’s plan is good considering that many people, including myself, are going to be vaccinated before the school year or very early in the school year,” Laura Ziessler (’23) said. “We have to go back eventually! It will be an adjustment, especially with the reinstatement of 3:00 p.m. school days. But to be honest, it’ll be easier to go back to school at the beginning of a school year than in the middle of next year or something similar. So, although it won’t be easy, it has to be done! I just hope that it will be as seamless as possible.”
As for teachers, many greatly anticipate the long awaited return to familiarity. “Governor Murphy’s plan for the next school year seems to reflect a growing hope to return to some degree of normalcy, even though it will take much more time before we can fully see what that means,” Humanities English teacher Mrs. Oppedisano said. “I feel a sense of relief at the prospect of having all my students in one space again, since this year has felt so fractured and frenzied (and quite frankly, I’d love to not have to touch Zoom again for a very long time…). I can understand the qualms that some may have about in-person schooling, though, especially for those who are not yet vaccinated [and] I don’t envy the challenge that awaits those who have to confront [questions] on the path ahead.”
However, many students also remain uncertain about the idea of returning full time in the school building, especially after a year of leniency. Concerns of safety remain as a topic of discussion. “I personally do not like how [Governor Murphy] is trying to eliminate virtual learning for the new school year without knowing the future of the pandemic,” Gabe Gutierrez (’23) said. “If we’d have to go back to school before the proper precautions are implemented, it will just be bad all around for the families and people who could get it.” Elliot Lee (’23) shared that he is “deterred from this new plan to go back to school mainly due to the fact that [students are getting] thrown back into an environment [they are] not used to.”
“Furthermore, kids who went all virtual last year still have warranted reasons on why they feel uncomfortable on coming back to school… [and] everyone has their own situations [that] the school doesn’t know about,” Lee said. He shared his concerns about the school’s ability to keep its doors open to students while also maintaining the safety precautions needed to keep the community safe. He fears that returning all students onto school grounds five days a week could stand as a challenge the district is unprepared to take on. “This isn’t the right way to enact normality like pre-Covid days, because frankly, it’s not. We shouldnt be treating it as such––we need to adapt to the new situation no matter how long we reminisce about the past.”
And as mentioned, many individuals have also dealt with personal circumstances that are neglected in the enactment of this plan. Eliminating virtual learning across New Jersey districts also eliminates students’s ability to choose their curriculum of preference and need. “As someone who struggles with anxiety, I’m very worried and afraid to go back to school this fall,” one THS student said. “Due to quarantine, I rarely even leave my house, and I’ve become increasingly attached and dependent on staying home. Leaving my house for extended periods of time triggers a lot of anxiety that often corporealizes into physical illnesses, and the thought of returning to school makes me even more anxious.” Due to the nature of our circumstances, many special cases remain that do not all fit the “one-size-fits-all” solution. “I think that this decision of remaining virtual or going in-person for learning should be an individual choice, as there are so many other unique situations that each student is dealt with. Entirely eliminating virtual learning takes this decision away and disregards any special circumstances of students (and staff) in a very insensitive manner.”
Nonetheless, the decision to eliminate virtual learning stands today to be enacted this fall. Hopefully, this step forward can be met with the proper safety precautions and adjustments to keep individuals safe, as well as the proper measures of compassion and leniency towards individuals in need of specialized support. The future remains bright as more vaccinations are distributed and the world combats the limitations of covid. And perhaps this fall students can comfortably and safely return to physical school classrooms in an effort to recreate “normal” life.