State ponies up $267M in fed funds to pay for weekly COVID-19 tests for NJ school staff

Back to school in NJ: fully vaxed or weekly testing required for staff, encouraged for students in all districts. Masks a must for everyone
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Teacher Amanda O’Connor greets members of her first grade class in front of Christa McAuliffe School in Jersey City, April 29, 2021. Kindergarten through third-grade students are returning to their school buildings in Jersey City for their first time in over a year.

New Jersey will provide schools $267 million in federal funds for COVID-19 diagnostic and screening tests after a state order requiring staff to either be vaccinated or get tested regularly.

State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said a COVID-19 screening protocol drafted in consultation with the local health department should be considered part of a broader strategy to keep students and staff safe during this year’s return to in-person instruction.

With school soon starting up, Murphy’s guidelines are further tweaked

Last month, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order mandating all students, staff and visitors wear masks in all schools. Last week, Murphy required all school staff who are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 be subject to coronavirus testing at least once a week.

“School-based testing should not be used alone, but as part of a layered prevention approach that includes masking, frequent handwashing, physical distancing and staying home when you are sick,” Persichilli said during Wednesday’s COVID-19 briefing. “When schools implement testing combined with prevention strategies, they can detect new cases to prevent outbreaks, reduce the risk of further transmission, and protect students, teachers and staff from COVID-19.”

In announcing the funds during the briefing, Murphy said routine testing is important because it can “detect the virus even among asymptomatic students and staff to prevent further spread in the school community.”

Offering financial encouragement

Both Murphy and Persichilli said they “strongly encourage” districts to participate in the program. By doing so, districts and nonpublic schools will get funds to pay for test kits, diagnostic lab services, personal protective equipment and full testing services through state-designated vendors. They can also get aid to support testing programs already in place.

It’s unclear whether the $267 million allocated to the state will be enough to cover all the costs, but there are other avenues through which schools can seek funding, Murphy said.

“Given that we don’t yet know the extent to which these programs may be utilized, we don’t know how far this $267 million will ultimately go as we provide these tests at no cost to districts, students or staff,” he said. “And our program will supplement the Federal Operation Expanded Testing Program, which also provides testing through federally contracted vendors at no cost to schools.”

“We expect all of that money to be reimbursable through federal funds, whether it’s going to the state, whether it’s going to counties or school districts directly,” added Parimal Garg, Murphy’s chief counsel.

To qualify for funding, officials must have a testing plan developed in collaboration with their local health department that follows the state Department of Health’s guidelines, which are based on viral activity within their region of the state.

Persichilli stressed that fully vaccinated students and staff will not need to participate in screening tests. As of Wednesday, 55% of children ages 12 to 17 had received at least one vaccine dose and about 44% of were fully vaccinated.

Testing at-risk staff, students weekly

Staff who are not fully vaccinated should be tested at least once a week, she said. Student screening may not be necessary in areas of low transmission. But in regions with moderate, high or very high virus activity, schools should test students who are not fully vaccinated, or random samples of 10% of students, at least once a week.

She said the testing should be offered on a voluntary basis and schools should have a procedure in place to get parental consent for minor students and or consent from the students themselves.

“School-based testing should never be conducted without consent from a parent or legal guardian,” Persichilli said.

They don’t face the same COVID-19 risks as adults. But children are impacted greatly

Murphy said he hopes “all parents and guardians ensure their child participates in testing when the opportunity arises.”

At least one school district, Hoboken, has implemented a policy requiring all unvaccinated students and staff to be tested weekly for COVID-19. That has not appeared to raise an outcry from parents in the city. Elsewhere around the state, however, some parents have been protesting the state’s mandatory masking requirement.

New Jersey’s guidance states that individuals who test positive should be excluded from school “immediately” and their school-based close contacts should be identified and excluded from school for between 10 and 14 days, depending on the viral spread in the region.

“We all want the safest return to school for our children and staff,” Persichilli said. The funding for a robust testing program will “help keep them in the classroom.”

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