SCOTCH PLAINS, N.J. — Gov. Philip D. Murphy has urged New Jersey school districts to open for some face-to-face instruction, repeatedly noting that the coronavirus spread among teachers and students was far lower than expected.
Last week, as New York City was reeling from the mayor’s decision to close the nation’s largest school district, Mr. Murphy joined with six other governors — including New York’s — to release a public statement about the importance, and relative safety, of in-person instruction.
His own schools weren’t listening: While most districts in New Jersey had reopened for some in-person instruction, many announced plans this week to return to all-remote learning through all or part of the holidays.
The tensions point to the difficulty governors across the Northeast have had in persuading districts to reopen more fully — decisions that often require school boards to buck powerful teachers unions and to live with the inherent risk of outbreaks as the virus surges.
Parents and children are often caught in the middle, forced to quickly shift routines and expectations in a year already marred by the extraordinary challenges of remote instruction.
In Scotch Plains-Fanwood, a midsize New Jersey district about 30 miles from Manhattan, the superintendent announced that schools would remain closed for at least two months less than 24 hours before many students were preparing to return to classrooms for the first time since March.
The superintendent, Joan Mast, cited 15 virus cases that had affected schools, but acknowledged that none involved in-school transmission. Most elementary students had been back in class for less than five days, and the older children had never gone back at all.
Pragati Duttaroy, a mother of two who turned up for a protest last week outside the Scotch Plains-Fanwood district offices, said her fourth-grade daughter, who has special education needs, was devastated.
“She had the best week of her life in school,” Ms. Duttaroy said about the week school was open for in-person instruction. “Now she’s home crying.”
“This school district is not using any true metrics to make a decision,” she added.
Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, has the power to shut down schools, as he did in March when New York and New Jersey were an early epicenter of the pandemic. And he has said that decisions about all-remote instruction need state approval and that districts must be working toward bringing students back to class.
Still, for all the governor’s public exhortations, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education could not point to a single instance when the state rejected a district’s plan to shift to all-remote instruction.
The governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut have faced similar pressure from districts and unions as they continue to stress the importance of in-person education. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo offered a plan to keep New York City’s schools open for at least a few more days, but the mayor rebuffed him.
In New Jersey, the governor’s approach has led the state’s 584 school districts to chart their own paths and has largely insulated him from direct criticism about unpopular decisions to close schools.
“Ultimately, he should be deciding what happens to our schools,” said Danielle Wildstein, a mother of three from Scotch Plains who organized last week’s protest. “And if he is going to leave it up to the districts, then he should be requiring them to make the decisions based on data with context.”
According to the state, 269 infections have been linked to 66 schools since September.
Many of the districts that have announced new temporary closures have cited the state’s drastic uptick in the number of virus cases, the need for a 14-day quarantine buffer after likely holiday gatherings and the stubborn rate of positive virus tests.
The rate of positive tests in New Jersey was 9 percent as of Friday — triple the rate that led New York City to close its schools.
In the statement with his fellow Northeast governors, Mr. Murphy said that proper precautions could alleviate the risk of the virus in schools — “even in communities with high transmission rates.”
“In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children,” the governors said last Thursday on Twitter.
The statement drew a mild public rebuke from the New Jersey teachers union, one of the Democratic governor’s key allies. Union officials said they were “dismayed” that the governor had “downplayed the danger.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Murphy, Christine Lee, said Wednesday that the conversation between districts and the state involved “the efforts the district would make to implement in-person instruction.”
“As we look ahead, the administration and D.O.E. will continue our dialogue with school communities, emphasizing the importance of in-person learning while continuing to monitor and respond to shifts in the public-health data,” she said in a statement.
State Senator M. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat who represents Newark and leads the Senate Education Committee, said that, in general, she was “disappointed with the D.O.E.’s vision during this pandemic.”
The state’s largest city districts, including Newark, have been closed since March.
“The department should have been more of a resource,” Ms. Ruiz said, “so that we didn’t have individual districts scrambling across the board.”
Ms. Ruiz has introduced legislation that calls for the state to administer standardized tests to establish a diagnostic benchmark of how far students are falling behind.
“I would make the assumption, and I hope I’m entirely wrong, that you’re going to see a continuation of the learning loss,” she said.
Summertime decisions about how to return to school in New Jersey came amid a leadership gap at the state’s education department: The commissioner, Lamont Repollet, took a new job as a college president, and two top assistant commissioners with decades of experience also left.
Mr. Murphy named a new acting education chief, Angelica Allen-McMillan, late last month.
Kyle Rosenkrans, executive director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, a Newark-based education nonprofit, said that he believed the flexibility districts were given was appropriate. But he said that the state had done a poor job of setting standards for measuring attendance and academic progress during the pandemic.
“I think where the ‘let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom strategy’ falls apart is where we’re setting minimum standards for academic progress,” said Mr. Rosenkrans, whose organization conducted a poll released last week that found that only 42 percent of New Jersey parents were satisfied with the quality of remote instruction.
“As in so many contexts,” Mr. Rosenkrans said, “if you’re low income, a student of color, you’re getting set further behind.”
In Scotch Plains, a predominantly white suburban district, Dr. Mast said the decision to close was made in consultation with public health officials and with support from the board of education. She said she did not need state approval to close.
Her initial decision not to reopen in September was linked to the need to make ventilation improvements, Dr. Mast said. Her recent decision to keep schools closed through the middle of January was based on cases of the virus in the community and concerns about staff shortages if teachers were required to quarantine, she said.
“Operating a school with inadequate supervision is a risk I cannot afford to take at any time,” Dr. Mast said in an email.
David B. Levine, a pediatrician with young children in the school district, said the new two-month closure was especially hard to accept given that the district had not taken advantage of September and October, when the infection rate was far lower, to reopen fully, as many nearby districts had.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about doing this safely,” said Dr. Levine, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board and spoke at last week’s rally.
“Keeping children home and having them sit around and become more ill in other ways is playing chicken with our lives,” he said.
The majority of districts in New Jersey had slowly reopened for partial in-person instruction. Many have adapted to rolling 14-day school closures if two or more infections are found to be linked to in-school transmission, as suggested by the state.
Some districts have managed to open to all students every day.
In Edison, a large, diverse suburban district in northern New Jersey, about 70 percent of the district’s 17,000 students chose to continue online-only instruction even after schools reopened for hybrid in-person learning in October, said Bernard F. Bragen Jr., the district’s superintendent.
Since then, just one of Edison’s 19 schools has had to close for two weeks after an outbreak.
Starting last week, all students interested in attending school were allowed to come to class each day schools were open based on the large number of families that had opted to keep their children home for all-virtual learning.
The demands on teachers, who are offering simultaneous instruction to students sitting in the classroom as well as those at home, have been extraordinary, he said.
“It’s extremely difficult and exhausting to staff,” Dr. Bragen said. “They’re doing the best that they can in a bad situation.”