NJ officials release restart standards for New Jersey colleges and universities

The New Jersey Office of the Secretary of Higher Education on Thursday issued standards for colleges and universities in the state as they begin restarting campus operations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The standards detail steps institutions should consider when developing plans. Best safety practices are covered in the areas of instruction, residential housing, computer laboratories, libraries, research, student services, transportation, dining, international travel, and athletics. 

Officials at Princeton University and many other universities and colleges in the state are expected to make announcements about their fall semester plans in early July. The guidelines will help shape decisions about in-person instruction for the fall semester.

As of July 1, in-person clinical rotations and labs will be allowed to resume at colleges and universities, subject to the submission of a restart plan to the state. Institutions must submit a restart plan to the state no later than 14 days prior to the expected implementation date of their plans. Each school’s plan must follow a phased approach.

“Sustained positive public health trends have allowed New Jersey to enter stage two on the road back to our ‘new normal,’ and after a period of uncertainty, we are pleased to be at a point where we can safely begin restarting campus operations for students, faculty, and staff,” said Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis. 

“An equitable restart of operations must be done carefully through an iterative, staged process that balances the desire to move forward with concerns for public health,” Smith Ellis said. “We know many students prefer learning in-person, particularly those who experience hardship and whose home environments are not conducive to online education. As we seek to ensure appropriate measures are in place so educational activity can continue, the health and safety of the entire campus community will remain our priority.”

Throughout each stage, schools must continue observing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New Jersey Department of Health standards for social distancing, sanitizing equipment and materials, handwashing, cleaning and disinfection, and accommodating people with COVID-19 symptoms or a positive diagnosis. In all stages, institutions with residential housing facilities must have a designated space for people who live on campus and are quarantining or self-isolating.

Colleges and universities must require face coverings for faculty, staff, students, and visitors, except where doing so would inhibit a person’s health. Institutions must adhere to mandatory statewide restrictions in place throughout each stage, including all applicable executive orders, until a vaccine or effective treatment is broadly available, but officials said they can adapt recommendations to best fit their communities’ needs. Schools must remain flexible to modify operations as public health conditions change and the state shifts from one stage to the next. The stages:

Stage 1

  • All in-person instruction, including labs, clinical rotations, and all other curricular activity is prohibited unless a waiver supported by a compelling rationale is obtained from the Secretary of Higher Education.
  • No students are allowed to reside in on-campus residential facilities, except for those enrolled in courses with an in-person approved waiver or in narrowly-defined extenuating circumstances who are already present on campus.
  • Computer laboratories and libraries remain closed. Institutions should explore potential alternatives, such as providing each student with a laptop and internet access. Returned items should be sanitized wherever possible.
  • In-person dining facilities are closed. Takeout, “grab-and-go,” and/or delivery may be available to those who must continue to reside on campus. 

Stage 2, effective beginning July 1

  • Most in-person instruction remains limited to instances where a waiver is obtained from the state. In-person instruction that requires labs, technical, clinical, or hands-on instruction and therefore cannot be readily taught other than through in-person instruction can resume with adherence to strict health and safety protocols.
  • A limited number of students can return to on-campus residential facilities. Full occupancy of buildings is not acceptable for restart plans. Institutions must reduce the density of residential living spaces to the extent practicable. Institutions should be mindful of students for whom residential housing is necessary for an equitable education. Common areas are closed, and outside visitors to residence halls must be limited to those present for delivery, maintenance or an emergency.
  • Computer laboratories remain closed. Curbside pickup or delivery of remotely-requested printed materials is available. This should be done by appointment.
  • Libraries may open in a limited fashion in accordance with the applicable state health and safety requirements.
  • Dining: Takeout or “grab and go” options should remain available. Outdoor dining only is allowed pursuant to statewide occupancy, health, and safety requirements.

Stage 3

  • Most in-person classroom instruction, labs, and other activities are permitted in accordance with state-established occupancy restrictions and health and safety restrictions.
  • Institutions may continue to operate on-campus residential facilities at reduced capacity. Full occupancy of buildings is not acceptable for restart plans. Institutions must reduce the density of residential living spaces to the extent practicable. Students with the greatest need are prioritized for housing, given the reduced capacity. Common areas may open if the layout allows for social distancing and adheres to state occupancy guidelines.
  • Computer laboratories and libraries may open in a limited fashion in accordance with applicable state occupancy, health, and safety restrictions. Curbside pickup or delivery remains available.
  • In-person indoor dining facilities may open with a limited occupancy based on state guidelines in place at the time. Institutions must adhere to all CDC and state protocols. Takeout or “grab and go” options should remain available. Outside dining may continue pursuant to strict health and safety guidelines.

Institutions will be responsible for establishing COVID-19 testing protocols on campus for employees and students. Institutions should work with their local health department to develop testing plans and to integrate contact tracing efforts. 

At the end of May, the state released commencement ceremony guidance for institutions of higher education that outline considerations for modified in-person graduation ceremonies beginning on July 6. State officials said colleges and universities that are planning graduations should prepare for a 500-person limit to be in place on and after July 6. State guidance includes requirements that ceremonies be held outdoors, adhere to social distancing protocols, and restrict the capacity to protect the health and safety of students and families celebrating graduations.