LIVINGSTON, NJ — As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise both within the Livingston Public Schools (LPS) system and the community at large—which has recorded 42 new cases since marking its 800th case on Thursday, Nov. 19—the district has once again adjusted its hybrid-instruction calendar in order to be proactive about safety and staffing issues that may arise as a result of travel plans and gatherings held over the Thanksgiving holiday.
As the New Jersey Department of Health has now designated Northeast New Jersey as an “orange” or “high-risk” location for the spread of COVID-19, mandating that school districts within that region to treat all symptomatic individuals as “presumed positives,” Superintendent Dr. Matthew Block explained that LPS is now required to “quarantine all individuals who have come in direct contact with anyone who is symptomatic, but not necessarily positive for COVID-19.”
With more than 30 cases of COVID-19 reported at LPS over the last two weeks, subjecting hundreds of staff members and students to a 14-day quarantine as a result, Block stated that complying with these latest protocols has caused a significant impact on staffing as well as many Livingston students and their families.
“This has immediately and significantly changed our contact-tracing and quarantine protocols,” the superintendent said on Monday, adding that the seven new cases reported between Friday and Monday added more than 200 quarantines to a list that was already nearing 300 on Friday night, according to the district’s two-week case summary. “Now we must quarantine staff and students who are symptomatic and may not be positive, whereas in the past—which was also becoming a more and more significant task—we were quarantining those who were positive. So just since Thursday, this has become and is a major challenge.”
As the district is currently averaging about 10-to-15 quarantines for every reported case of COVID-19, Block explained that the need to qualify all symptomatic persons as “assumed positives” has caused a significant increase in the number people being quarantined.
He also noted that although some symptoms on the list of those that would qualify an individual as an “assumed positive” COVID-19 case are specific to the novel coronavirus—such as labored breathing or loss of taste and smell—other symptoms that “could potentially be attributed to non-COVID things”—such as coughing, headaches and fatigue—are also causing additional quarantines.
“If you're being quarantined and the people around you are being quarantine for symptom reasons, an alternate diagnosis or a negative test can negate all of those quarantines,” said Block. “But it's taking time now—about five days, we’re finding—and it has to be a PCR test. The instant test does not count to bring people back, and seeing a doctor isn't always straightforward right now, either.”
According to Block, many families who had previously opted for the hybrid-instruction model have since returned to all-remote instruction to avoid the risk of being quarantined.
“We have seen, even without the quarantines, an increase in our fully remote students, particularly at the secondary level,” said Block. “Over the past few weeks, we've gone about from about 70 percent in person to about 48 [percent] in person.
“In doing sort of informal questions and answers with families and students at those levels, people have expressed a real hesitance—not as much about feeling they're going to get sick if they come into school, but the need to quarantine for 14 days if they come in contact with someone in school has been the more prevalent answer as to why people are switching to remote learning. They don't want to risk that 14-day quarantine.”
Another staffing challenge that the district is currently facing is the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which Block stated has “changed the parameters about medical leaves for staff members and broadens the definition of what constitutes ‘underlying condition.’”
“The significant change is in the addition of pregnancy to that list,” he said. “We have some staff members who are pregnant who maybe need to be accommodated or change their status in terms of working in person, which creates another staffing challenge. But that's something that we need to accommodate and, of course, we would want to accommodate.”
As of Monday night, there were nearly 100 staff members in quarantine—including about 40 from Livingston High School, 21 from Heritage Middle School, six from Mt. Pleasant Middle School and 30 from the elementary schools.
Busing has also been a significant challenge at LPS, as there are currently 10 members of the LPS Transportation Department in quarantine as well as other department members who are currently out for reasons unrelated to COVID-19.
In addition to being fully remote on Tuesday and Wednesday leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday weekend at both middle schools and the high school, the district has also decided to reopen its secondary schools in an all-remote setting for a full week after Thanksgiving. The elementary schools will learn remotely for the first two days after the holiday weekend as well.
“I want to emphasize [that] it is our desire to continue offering in-person learning as much as possible; [but] we need to put health and safety first,” said Block. “There are just some very practical reasons here that we need to take the steps that we're taking…
“Due to an increase in cases and quarantines, we are unable to successfully staff our secondary schools at this time. Out of the concern for traveling and gatherings over the long weekend based on the new quarantine-management mandate and the ‘high-risk’ designation, we'll have all secondaries fully remote the week after Thanksgiving and elementaries the two days after Thanksgiving just to give us a chance to see if we've been able to make some improvement [and] give us a chance to inventory how many symptomatic people and how many positive cases have come in over the Thanksgiving weekend.”
Block concluded that the district continues to work closely with the Livingston Health Department and that he will also be attending the Livingston Township Council meeting on Dec. 21 to discuss coordinating on town-wide health and safety efforts.
To visit the LPS COVID-19 Dashboard, which is being updated periodically to indicate the number of cases and quarantines at each school as well as which schools are being temporarily closed for in-person learning due to outbreaks, CLICK HERE. According to Block, several cases and hundreds of additional quarantines have been reported since the most recent update.
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