Murphy addresses changes to upcoming school year, elections due to coronavirus

Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) said all registered, active voters will receive a mail-in ballot for the general election at the beginning of October. 
Photo by Chris Pedota, The Record/GannettGov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) said all registered, active voters will receive a mail-in ballot for the general election at the beginning of October. 

This week, New Jersey officials continued to address challenges posed by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, including the upcoming school year and elections, as the number of total cases reached 187,164 with 14,064 deaths, according to the New Jersey Department of Health

On Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) gave an update on the state’s long-term care facilities, which were greatly impacted by COVID-19. He said Manatt Health issued a report on the facilities with short, medium and long-term solutions for improving the facilities, some of which have already been implemented. 

Murphy said the state will now be implementing mandatory benchmarks for facilities to meet in order to reopen to visitors and resume normal operations. The phases of reopening will be based on the time since the last COVID-19 outbreak at a given facility and all facilities will have to adhere to baseline infection control measures and requirements for personal protective equipment stockpiling.

“To ensure that we get this right, we are preparing to commit a total of $155 million in state and federal funds. Of this, we will direct $25 million in CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity funding ... through the Department of Health to support our new staff testing program,” he said. 

Additionally, Department of Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson is working with lawmakers to secure approximately $130 million to help support the state’s nursing home workforce, Murphy said.

At his Wednesday press conference, Murphy said the New Jersey Supreme Court approved the state’s plans to borrow funding in order to protect public jobs and services. He said although this new funding source is helpful, it does not eliminate the state’s need for more federal funding to prevent further economic issues and that the state would rather not borrow money.

Additionally, Murphy signed an executive order permitting all pre-K through 12 schools and all colleges to reopen for in-person instruction for this academic year.

“As many of our colleges and universities have continued offering classes during the summer, in-person instruction may fully resume immediately, should institutions so desire, and so long as social distancing measures — among other protections — are strictly adhered to,” Murphy said. “Any student who chooses to continue remote learning must be accommodated. We have held ongoing discussions with the leaders throughout the higher education system, and we believe they are ready for this step.”

University spokesperson Dory Devlin said this executive order will not change the University’s plans for the Fall 2020 semester.

As for schools with students in grades pre-K through 12, Murphy said there is not a single reopening plan that could apply to all students. Because some schools are not able to meet the safety guidelines issued by the Department of Health, the state will now permit these schools to begin the year with fully remote classes.

“Public school districts will need to spell out their plans for satisfying these unmet standards at a date by which they anticipate the ability to resume in-person instruction,” he said.

Today, Murphy said the upcoming general election on Nov. 3 will be primarily vote-by-mail. The state will also introduce online voter registration beginning Sept. 4. 

“All of us recognize the importance of this year’s election. Ensuring that every voter has the ability to securely cast their ballot while protecting public health is our paramount concern,” he said.

All active registered New Jersey voters will automatically receive a prepaid return postage vote-by-mail ballot from their county clerk, which will be mailed by Oct. 5, Murphy said. No sample ballots will be provided, and all ballots can either be mailed, deposited in a secure dropbox or handed to a poll worker at a polling place on election day.

Ballots that are mailed must carry a postmark by Nov. 3 and be received by the county clerk by 8 p.m. on Nov. 10, Murphy said. Ballots without postmarks due to postal error are valid as long as they are received by 8 p.m. on Nov. 5.

In-person voting will be done with provisional ballots, and each municipality will be required to open at least one in-person polling place on election day, with all counties required to keep 50 percent of their polling places open, he said. All public schools will be closed for in-person instruction on election day.

Murphy also announced the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education will begin distributing approximately $150 million in funding to help colleges and universities offset costs incurred due to COVID-19, including expenses for increased sanitation, modifying campus facilities and costs due to transitioning to online learning. Higher education officials can apply for the funding by demonstrating how the funding would be used.