Students celebrate Catholic Schools Week 2020 amid a year when the Covid pandemic altered in-person instructions and called for indoor mask mandates.

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COURT HOUSE - Schools across the county will open in September under the threat of Covid outbreaks due to spikes in state cases caused by the highly transmissible delta variant.

In May, Gov. Phil Murphy announced schools are required to provide full-day, full-time, in-person instruction, as they had before the pandemic. In June, the governor said mask requirements at schools in the fall would be a local school district decision.That changed when the delta variant led to a new surge in cases; evidence from across the nation showed a higher percentage of infected children than with earlier variants, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance was altered to recommend masking in schools.  

Now, schools are still working to ensurechildren receive full-time, in-person instruction while coping with a new mask mandate, which the governor issued Aug. 6. The mandate applies to indoor school facilities, buses and other school vehicles. There are exceptions, but most students attending school in fall 2021 will be masked. The mandate also applies to all staff and visitors.

In ordering the return to masks, Murphy cited the fact that children under 12 are not eligible to receive available vaccines, the recent surge in new cases, and data showing children more susceptible to the delta variant. Murphy said that “anyone telling you that we can open schools safely without masks is lying to you.”

Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli added to the concern when she noted that less than 50% of the 12-to 18-year-old eligible population is fully vaccinated.

Legal challenges to Murphy’s order exist, but unless they gain traction in the courts, masks will be required. 

Upper Township School District stated that any student refusing to wear a mask in a required setting will be sent home, and the refusal will constitute a disciplinary event.

The county’s 16 public school districts, as well as private and parochial schools, must comply with Murphy’s Executive Order 241. The mandates stop there, for now.

A 15-page safety and health guidance booklet, The Road Forward (https://bit.ly/3Dki1RJ), states the guidelines are not mandates, and the execution of a safe environment for the schools is left to the local school districts. 

Prepared by the state departments of Education and Health, the booklet states it “contains recommendations for public schools rather than mandatory standards.”

The document urges schools to promote vaccination to those eligible. It suggests that schools ensure physical distancing of 3 feet versus 6 feet last year. However, the document says that the CDC recommends use of 6 feet of social distancing for those not fully vaccinated. 

With those under 12 not vaccinated, what mechanism the school is to use to determine the status of older eligible students and staff is not mentioned. 

Moving to 6 feet for younger students risks placing schools in the same bind they were in last year, when space was at a premium.

Some county schools promoted a return to scheduling that is not cohort based. Upper Township has a presentation on its website, stating that intent. The Road Forward urges the opposite, recommending maintaining cohorts, “as feasible.”

The booklet guides cleaning and disinfecting, air flow and parental screening regimes. Its recommendations are also tied to community transmission levels, as measured on the weekly Covid Activity Report (https://bit.ly/2VVheSp).

There is a section that deals with school districts' “planned response to symptomatic individuals.” Here, the state references another set of standards concerning communicable diseases children might encounter in schools or child care settings. This list is known as the School Exclusion List (https://bit.ly/3mrOYWi), and it does not focus on Covid.

There are varying levels of quarantine for individuals, including students, who contract Covid. The length of time for quarantine changes from 10, or even seven days, with a negative test, to 14 days, depending on the level of community spread. 

When a student is quarantined, the school is responsible for providing remote or virtual options “commensurate with in-person instruction.” What is missing from the booklet is any guidance on under what conditions a school may have to close and revert to remote learning. 

What all this means is that there could be very big differences this year. Many schools will have removed the ubiquitous plastic barriers. Social distancing requirements are less stringent and left to local decision making. 

Schools can return to scheduling students by class period and allowing movement from room to room, even though the state guidelines suggest otherwise. Several county schools are planning the resumption of student activities that were curtailed last year.

Schools are “encouraged” to report weekly student and staff Covid counts to the state, but with that not a mandate, the intelligence on what is happening in a specific school district will be best obtained from the school district.

Some school districts, Avalon/Stone Harbor among them, promised to maintain information on confirmed cases on the district website. Not all districts addressed the issue.

The safety booklet advises school districts that they should be prepared for “potential updates prior to the start of the school year.”

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

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