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COURT HOUSE - In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines for reopening schools safely. 

The guidelines reinforced and strengthened key mitigation strategies: The correct use of facial masks; physical distancing; hand hygiene; surface decontamination and appropriate ventilation protocols; and the use of contact tracing and isolation, when Covid cases are confirmed.

The CDC tied its recommendations for reopening schools to these key practices and consideration of the level of community transmission, adjusting the levels from those in its earlier guidance.

The CDC did not include teacher and staff vaccinations as part of its key strategies, viewing vaccination programs as an extra layer of protection, but not a necessary one for the safe reopening of schools. The decision on priorities in the vaccination program remains with the states.

Several states increased the priority of teachers in their vaccination programs, but New Jersey is not one of them. An Education Week tracking system shows, as of Feb. 24, that 24 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, made teachers eligible for the vaccine. 

In six other states, including Pennsylvania, some teachers were included in the eligible pool, while two states - Vermont and Rhode Island - are "prioritizing vaccine distribution based on age and health conditions, not by professions." 

 New Jersey is among the remaining 18 states that have not opened eligibility to teachers.

In Cape May County, there are 16 operating school districts, including two county districts. All school districts are holding in-person instruction, except one, and that status is about to change.

As of Feb. 22, state information shows five of those districts – Avalon, Stone Harbor, North Wildwood, West Cape May and Wildwood Crest – are providing full in-person instruction to students.

Ten districts – Cape May, County Special Services, County Technical, Dennis Township, Lower Cape May Regional, Lower Township, Middle Township, Ocean City, Upper Township and Wildwood - are using a hybrid arrangement.

Woodbine School District went fully remote in late November 2020 and announced it will revert to a hybrid model, beginning March 1.

The state Covid dashboard shows the state’s school districts have done well since September in terms of confirmed in-school transmissions. There have been 152 outbreaks across public schools in the state, with 737 confirmed in-school transmissions. 

The definition of an outbreak is two or more confirmed cases among students and staff that are linked to the school setting within a 14-day period.

In Cape May County, the dashboard records 10 outbreaks and a total of 23 in-school transmission cases, with three of those outbreaks and 10 cases dating back to the early days of the reopening in September 2020.

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) advocated for teacher inclusion in the eligibility for vaccination. So far, Gov. Murphy resisted, saying that teachers are in the “on-deck circle” and that they will be included “sooner, rather than later.” 

NJEA is the state affiliate of the National Education Association. In almost every district in the state, its local affiliate is recognized as the bargaining agent for the district's teachers.

NJEA President Marie Blistan Feb. 9 testified before a Joint Committee on Public Schools, in Trenton, saying, “We must do everything possible to prioritize vaccine access for educators.” 

She added that “vaccinating educators is one of the most important steps we can take” to keep schools open for in-person instruction. 

NJEA initiated a letter campaign to state officials demanding priority access. The campaign generated 15,000 letters.

NJEA Communications Director Steve Baker admitted, “It is still very much a district-by-district, case-by-case” issue.

NJEA Region One includes Cape May County. Region One representative Stephanie Tarr agrees that the “sooner we get all educators vaccinated, the safer our students and our school communities will be.” 

Tarr also notes, “Every district is unique, in regard to its facilities and capability to meet those safety standards,” referencing the CDC guidelines. 

“That is why it is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” she added.

The debate, in many ways, is also driven by vaccine availability. 

The state prioritized two groups. Health care professionals and long-term care residents and staff are in category 1A. Category 1B includes first responders and individuals age 65 and older, along with those 16-64 with medical conditions that meet the CDC guidelines for those at risk for severe illness from the virus. 

Educators may be eligible by age or medical condition, but under state criteria, they are not eligible by their occupation.

To date, the availability of the vaccine has fallen short of meeting the demand in the groups declared eligible, complicating any decision to further widen the eligibility criteria.

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

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