More schools switch to remote learning amid positive COVID-19 cases

Joanna Gagis, Correspondent | September 15, 2020 | Education

With three teachers testing positive for COVID-19, Washington Township in Gloucester County joins the ranks of several districts across the state adjusting their reopening plans.

“Two staff members that had tested positive at Hurfville, many days apart, but within 14 days, did not work together. There was no connectivity; they didn’t socialize, they didn’t car pool. So based on that criteria, the requirement is that the building then be sent on remote instruction and closed down for a time of 14 days,” said Superintendent Joseph Bollendorf.

The criteria to close Hurfville Elementary was spelled out in the New Jersey Department of Health’s guidelines. The one positive case in the high school didn’t require a school shut down as some reports have indicated. The teacher quarantined for 14 days, along with anyone else who may’ve been exposed.

“In the back of our minds, if you study what’s going on, we knew that this was a distinct possibility. So having that very specific guidance in place is helpful to us because no superintendent in New Jersey is going to be left with having to make their own decisions,” Bollendorf said.

But some districts are not taking any chances and are shutting down schools after just one case, like an elementary school in Howell and Chatham High School, which started with one but now has 12 cases.

Frankford Township went all remote after one case in its only K-8 school.

In Lodi, two teachers tested positive, and even though students are already virtual, the union wants all teachers working from home.

In Verona, high school sports were cancelled for two weeks after several students were at a party with a potentially infected person over the weekend.

“Is this more than we expected? I think it’s about what we expected,” Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday at his coronavirus press briefing. “I still don’t believe we’re aware of any in-school transmission, but if that’s not the case please correct the record. And secondly, it feels to me, I’d say quite strongly, that the system is working. That steps are being taken as they should be.”

But some have criticized and said the governor is sending mixed messaged by opening in-person dining recently, even if only at 25%, but then allowing many school districts to remain fully remote. Dr. Larry Kleinman said there’s a big difference.

“People eating out make their own decisions. Children in school are having decisions made for them, and I think we have to be careful. One is an optional activity, one is a required activity and that matters,” he said.

And he cautions that there are ways to spread the disease indoors, like aerosolization, meaning the tiny droplets that can escape a mask and get into the air.

“There’s no question that when the virus is aerosolized, it is contagious longer than droplets. It hangs in the air and it can move about. We haven’t quantified well the risk or what this means in practice in settings such as school. We do know that when toilets are flushed, there is aerosolization, or the finer droplets that hang longer, are created. It makes restrooms, both the cleaning of restrooms and ventilation in restrooms, one of the potential sources for contagion,” said Kleinman.

And given the asymptomatic spread in many kids, he’d like to see the state gathering more data on the schools and child care centers that do reopen.