State issues guidance for COVID-19 outbreaks as school starts

Tuesday’s the big day for school districts across the state as classes resume. While many will be learning virtually, the majority are hybrid plans. Districts have spent months preparing for students’ return, but one question remains: what happens if COVID-19 joins them?

“If there are two or more cases in the same classroom, or what we would say is an outbreak linked to one cohort, the school can remain open,” New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said on Sept. 4.

Persichilli outlined state guidance for schools’ handling of outbreaks, saying anyone with close contact to a single case, or to an outbreak in one classroom, would need to stay home for 14 days.

But in the event of spread outside the classroom, Persichilli said, “If there are two or more cases within that two-week period, or 14 days, linked together by a school activity but in different classrooms, that would be considered an outbreak including multiple cohorts. Local health officials would make recommendations on whether to close the school based on that investigation.”

Much like the school reopening plans, the state is leaving a lot to local control, meaning local departments of health will play a critical role in determining if and when schools close down.

“When it gets difficult is when the school doesn’t keep the records and we have to go in there to try to get the records ourselves, making calls to 300 parents, trying to find out information about them,” said Paschal Nwako, Camden County health officer and public health coordinator. “How did the students get to the school, if they’re going through busing. How they cohabit in the school, how they congregate in the school. If they’re members of the cohort, if they eat together, if they play together. Things like that, those kind of information we expect to get from the school.”

But in the event of an outbreak, will schools be held liable if a student or a family member gets sick or dies? Rutgers Law School professor Adam Scales says schools need to do everything possible to protect themselves.

“If you are a school system, you want to following all the CDC guidelines. You want to be very disciplined about making sure that the children are following your guidelines,” Scales said. “I think that’s going to be the real issue for schools. Teachers don’t want to become mask police, that’ll probably take up most of the class time. But if they don’t do that, then they are open to the charge that they haven’t faithfully followed CDC guidelines.”

He believes it’ll be hard to prove in court that illness was a result of a school’s wrongdoing unless there’s no adherence to guidelines. Some schools have already issued guidance to parents, like failure to comply with mask wearing will require a student to go remote.

But New Jersey Education Association Vice President Sean Spiller says it’s is a real concern for teachers, on top of trying to teach effectively.

“I think educators, that’s what’s weighing on everyone’s mind, the health of the student. You know, everybody, unfortunately, if you’ve been in this long enough you know a student that may have passed from a car accident or something else, and it’s so traumatic for the whole school community,” Spiller said. “But I think the fact that we’re having this discussion, probably is a red flag that we should be following that science, but maybe we should be waiting until the curve has us in a safer place.”

But Nwako says what happens in school will be a result of how the whole community behaves.