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COURT HOUSE - “If you’re looking for normalcy, you’re going to be disappointed.” With that comment, at his Sept. 30 coronavirus briefing, Gov. Phil Murphy began a discussion of the status of reopened schools across New Jersey. 

Unveiling a new page on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, Murphy announced that 11 schools experienced outbreaks since the school year began (https://bit.ly/38xsdHc). The outbreaks involve 43 individuals and are spaced over seven counties. 

Cape May County has three school districts that meet the state Health Department’s definition of an outbreak, with in-school transmission. They are Upper Township School District, Dennis Township School District and Cape Christian Academy.  

According to state data, 10 individuals within the three schools were impacted.  

The state Health Department's definition of an outbreak is written to allow for identification and immediate intervention in cases of in-school transmission. The goal is to identify the spread of the coronavirus while it is limited and can be contained. 

What triggers the application of the term outbreak are two or more confirmed COVID-19 cases among students or staff, with onsets within 14 days.  

The cases must also be epidemiologically linked with the school setting, be cases that do not share a household, and are identified as not close contacts of each other in another setting. This means an outbreak doesn't need to involve a large number of cases.  

In Dennis Township, a count maintained on the district website showed one student with a confirmed case, as well as four staff, as of Oct. 2 (https://bit.ly/3l9daZv). The outbreak in Upper Township Primary School involves two individuals. 

Murphy warned that those who expected there would not be such outbreaks were not dealing with the realities of the pandemic. “We knew there would be cases when we reopened,” Murphy said.  

Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Deemer said 11 outbreaks four weeks into the school year across 3,000 schools means “we are off to a good start.” 

Murphy frequently said this is not a normal school year. With 81 school districts holding all in-person classes, the experience for the vast majority of the state’s students is far from the traditional model of instruction.  

Of 811 school districts discussed in the governor’s briefing, over half are using a hybrid model, which mixes  in-person instruction with a large dose of remote learning.  

Another 35% of the districts went all remote for the new school year, with the expectation that they will phase in some level of in-person instruction. 

In Cape May County, Lower Township Mayor Frank Sippel announced that elementary schools would be moving from in-person instruction two days a week to four days a week, starting Oct. 13. 

This communication from Sippel followed a letter two days prior, from Lower Cape May Regional (LCMR) Superintendent Joseph Castellucci, informing the public that members of one of its sports teams would be required to quarantine after game-related contact with a player from another team who is “presumed positive” for COVID-19. 

Castellucci emphasized that this was “a low-level exposure to a possible COVID-19 case,” but it shows the quick action being taken in the county’s schools when confronted with any risk of school-related spread of COVID-19. 

After two individuals tested positive at Upper Township Primary School, officials moved the school entirely to virtual learning until Oct. 13. This move impacted the primary school, not the elementary or middle schools in the municipality. 

Schools countywide are managing the challenges. As national news shows images of crowded hallways and reports spiking cases, local school districts are seeing low  in-school transmission levels after a month since most reopened.  

In his regular news conference Sept. 30, Murphy pointed, again, to the state’s hot spots. In the daily numbers, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said that Ocean County accounted for 188 new cases that day. 

The hot spots are increasing the state’s overall positivity rating, a measure of positive tests to all tests in a given period, to 3%, the highest it has been since July 17. 

Balancing the right of privacy regarding health issues with the public’s right to information about the spread and potential risks associated with the coronavirus is a difficult line to walk. School districts are handling the matter differently. 

LCMR’s website provided immediate access to Castellucci’s letter concerning the sports team. It did not name the team or provide information that might identify the students, but  provided the public with information. 

Dennis Township School District contains a chart that shows, for each month, the number of any confirmed COVID-19 cases among students or staff. 

In Upper Township, no information was posted to the primary school’s Facebook page or on the district’s website about the school’s temporary closure. Similarly,  Cape Christian Academy’s website showed no sign of a Health Department designation of an outbreak at the school. 

How much information is provided to the general public is based on decisions at the school districts and can vary from one district to another. Decisions about temporary closures are made with involvement from the local health department. 

Murphy assured the public that families of students and staff directly affected by someone’s positive test will be notified by school or health officials. 

With some schools increasing in-person instruction time, others are battling to quickly contain identified small outbreaks, the character of this school year is becoming apparent. 

Deemer spoke of an additional 2.4 million masks that will become available soon to state school districts. Both he and Murphy spoke of the state funds that were allocated to reopening technology needs such as Chromebooks or providing internet access for students without it. 

Even where schools must temporarily fall back on remote instruction, most are better prepared to do so than they were in March, according to school and state officials.   

According to Deemer, state schools are “light ears ahead of where we finished last school year.” 

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.