Fine Print: How health and safety guidelines for schools have been revised

With school soon starting up, Murphy’s guidelines are further tweaked
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
April 29, 2021: Teacher Jennifer Roman, right, works with her second grade students at Christa McAuliffe School in Jersey City.

Title:The Road Forward: Health & Safety Guidance for the 2021-2022 School Year (Updated August 2021)”

What the guidelines cover: The initial guidelines for schools from the state Department of Health were released last year, covering all aspects of schools’ response to the pandemic, from social distancing to masking. The latest revisions came out Friday, mostly tweaking the previous rules.

What’s new: Schools have long clamored for greater guidance from the state. But there is little here that is new or surprising, with the revised guidelines mostly following the latest word from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And this edition provides maybe the last revisions before school districts open in the coming weeks. It also comes as Gov. Phil Murphy has already announced significant mandates that include universal masking for all students and staff and a vaccinate-or-test mandate for staff.

In a nutshell: The biggest addition in the latest revisions is the masking mandate that Murphy announced two weeks ago, including its exemptions for health reasons and others. The revisions also provide greater detail on social distancing and contact tracing.

Murphy’s warning: The governor at his weekly media briefing Monday addressed some districts, including in his home county of Monmouth, that are saying they will defy the masking order. “I’m aware, including some in my own backyard, and I will say that we will not look kindly upon that, and we’ll take appropriate action in response,” he said.

Three feet with leeway: The guidelines continue to be flexible on the issue of social distancing in the classroom and outside, saying that a 3-foot distance is optimal but also leaving plenty of leeway for less than 3 feet depending on the circumstances.

“During periods of low or moderate community transmission, [districts] should implement physical distancing recommendations to the maximum degree that allows them to offer full in-person learning,” the document read. “During periods of high community transmission, if maximal social distancing recommendations cannot be maintained, [districts] should prioritize other prevention measures including screening testing and cohorting.”

Before the new vaccination mandate: The revisions came out three days before Murphy announced that he would also require COVID-19 vaccination of all school staff from preschool to 12th grade, as well as all state employees. But even so, the revised guidance does emphasize that schools should press both staff and students to be vaccinated against the disease.

“Many school-aged children missed recommended vaccines over the last year due to disruptions associated with COVID-19. [Districts] should review and consider the CDC resources that may be helpful in addressing low coverage in children and preparing for a safe return to school. [Districts] are encouraged to send reminders to families about school immunization requirements and follow up with families of children who are not in compliance with requirements and encourage compliance.”

Quarantining: Among the biggest questions still to be answered is the extent of quarantining that students will have to go through in the case of COVID-19 outbreaks and whether schools would be forced back into remote instruction for those students.

The latest revisions leave unchanged a byzantine process that recommends different numbers of required quarantine days depending on the rates of infection in the school and the broader community. In most cases, these are in the seven-day to 14-day range. But the revised guidance does raise the prospect of remote instruction for these students.

“If a [district] is required to exclude a student, group of students, a class, or multiple classes … while the school itself remains open for in-person instruction, the [district] should be prepared to offer virtual or remote instruction to those students in a manner commensurate with in-person instruction to the extent possible.”

Murphy’s pledge: The governor on Monday stressed that even with quarantining, remote instruction will be the exception, and he will continue to require districts be predominantly in person in their instruction. “As we sit here August 23, two weeks from the go date for most schools, we’re in person,” he said.

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