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As school districts statewide develop plans to reopen this fall, a new poll shows New Jersey residents are nearly split on whether to put students and staff back in the classroom.

The statewide survey from Fairleigh Dickinson University found 46% in favor of reopening with existing protective measures and 42% in favor of online education until an improved COVID-19 therapeutic or a vaccine becomes available.

Krista Jenkins, professor of politics and government at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said the poll shows that the decision makers are in “a no-win situation.”

“No matter how hard districts try, it’s going to be difficult to maintain social distancing and other safety measures in schools,” Jenkins said. “And yet there’s plenty to be worried about with the continuation of online learning. A divided public recognizes the challenges on both sides.”

The poll shows that classroom instruction was least favored by women (42%), younger adults (35%), and Democrats and Independents (38%). Republicans were the most supportive (60%), reflecting President Donald Trump, who recently said opening schools is vital for the well-being of students and their parents.

“We’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on,” he said earlier this month. “Open your schools in the fall.”

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Per state directives, officials for New Jersey’s nearly 600 public school districts are developing reopening plans for approval at the end of July. The state Department of Education said all public schools will reopen this fall. Its plan requires staggered lunchtimes, six-feet of distancing in classrooms and on buses and masks for teachers.

The plan says students are to be encouraged to wear masks, but some say that’s not enough. The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, could push for universal mask wearing and testing for all staff and students in the week before schools open - and each week thereafter.

The Healthy Schools Network and the New Jersey Work Environment Council recently released a report calling for masks for all staff and students, examinations of school ventilation units and non-toxic cleaning supplies.

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The report also urges states to issue clear authoritative guidance rather than options. Allowing school officials to make “their own decisions about how to reopen, despite the ever-changing science and their lack of public health expertise,” would accelerate the pandemic and devastate educational programs, it said.

“In order for parents to send their children to school, they must believe that schools will be safe spaces for their children and families,” said Donna Mazyck, the executive director of the National Association of School Nurses.

Given recommendations for smaller class sizes and fewer bus passengers, officials in many New Jersey districts say they are leaning toward a hybrid model that allows half or less of the student body in the school at a time. Distance learning will continue to fill in the gaps.

Many are hoping the development of a vaccine will allow a full “return to normal.” Still, only 50% of the respondents in the Fairleigh Dickinson University poll said a COVID-19 vaccine should be made mandatory for students.

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Nearly two-thirds (62%) of state Democrats believe a vaccine should be required. Conversely, 54% of Republicans and 44% of all respondents said it should be a matter of personal choice.

The poll nevertheless found that only 23% of people would consider going to a movie theater in the absence of a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment. Moreover, while only 39% would consider returning to their house of worship, 51% would visit a salon, 45% would enter an indoor mall and 59% would eat at a restaurant.

Gov. Phil Murphy pulled back on plans to reopen restaurants to indoor dining on July 2. The poll found two-thirds of New Jersey residents approve of his leadership during the pandemic, including 44% of Republicans.

Only 36% of those polled approved President Trump’s response to COVID-19.

The poll relied on a random sample of 809 New Jersey adults contacted by phone from June 18 through June 30. The simple sampling error for the poll is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

David Zimmer is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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