New Jersey has more than 600 school districts and 1.4 million students, and Governor Phil Murphy is allowing each one to decide whether it’s ready to open for in-person learning this September. 

The governor is backing off from an earlier decision that required all districts to begin classroom instruction. Now, districts can apply for a delay and start the school year with all-remote learning.

“Not only will this not be a normal school year, furthermore, there is no one-size-fits-all plan to this very difficult situation,” Murphy said Wednesday at his COVID-19 briefing. He noted the magnitude of creating a policy for the almost 600 public school districts in New Jersey. “Each one faces its own unique challenges, serves a unique community, and has its own unique character.”

Murphy has been under growing pressure from teachers and school districts about re-opening the schools. Teachers had been wary of returning to the classroom, and some school districts—including Jersey City public schools—decided to keep all children at home.   

The heads of unions representing school administrators, principals, and teachers issued a statement on Tuesday night, asking Murphy to open schools with remote-only education this fall. 

During his press conference, Murphy appeared to anticipate criticism that he’s caving in to the teachers union. 

“Today, we’re continuing to show our willingness to listen, to learn, and to act accordingly,” he said. “We are flexible because we value listening. And we are listening because we value flexibility.”

Under Murphy’s new directive, school districts would submit an application that states which of the state guidelines they are not ready to meet and set a date for starting in-person instruction. 

The New Jersey Department of Health is developing guidelines and while it hasn’t released specifics, the health commissioner listed several examples. Students must wear masks all day, parents will be advised on how to check for symptoms before school, buildings must have ventilation, and social distancing should be practiced. Districts must also have a plan for how it would isolate a sick student or staff member and what steps would be taken to prevent an outbreak. 

Schools would also need to have rapid tests on hand for anyone who is symptomatic, according to Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli. 

Murphy has made several adjustments to his school re-opening plans. After announcing that all schools would hold in-school instruction beginning in September, he gave families the choice to keep children at home and be provided remote instruction. Then he mandated that all children would wear a mask during school. 

In recent days, the opposition to classroom instruction has been growing. Teachers are concerned for their safety, and that’s causing a shortage of teachers in some districts. Schools in Elizabeth, N.J., decided not to have students return to school. Mayor Chris Bollwage told WCBS 2 that 375 teachers have already notified the district they won’t return in September for medical reasons. 

But Murphy said Wednesday he still expects the vast majority of school districts will offer a mix of in-person and online instruction.  

“This is the opposite of confusion,” Murphy said. “Health and safety, educational experience, equity, flexibility. This is, in my judgement, a big step.”