LIVINGSTON, NJ — Although Livingston Public Schools (LPS) Superintendent Dr. Matthew Block remained optimistic that Livingston High School (LHS) and Burnet Hill Elementary (BHE) will be able to reopen on schedule after transitioning back to all-remote instruction due to COVID-19 outbreaks, he and other local officials are urging community members to take the recent spike in cases seriously and do their part to minimize the spread.

Over the last two weeks, LPS has reported 28 cases among students and staff as well as 312 people who have been quarantined due to possible exposure—causing LHS to close until Nov. 17 and BHE until Nov. 24. As cases continue to rise within the community as well as the schools, Block asked LPS families to reflect on their remote-learning experience and consider “the importance of minimizing community spread” by observing healthy practices on their own time.

“We have now experienced first-hand how personal health practices and the resulting community spread is intertwined with our ability to provide in-person instruction for our students,” said Block. “Our ability to keep our schools open really relies on people doing the right things outside of school…It's just so important for the community to heed those warnings when we make them, because it really is dependent on our ability to contact trace and control those cases.”

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Block reiterated that all cases reported within the schools have thus far been traced back to activities outside school, such as sports, weddings and other indoor gatherings.

According to Livingston Health Officer Lou Anello, the Livingston Health Department (LHD) has been receiving between 10 and 15 new cases on a daily basis in recent weeks, and the majority of those testing positive for COVID-19 have been 21-to 41-year-old residents attending large gatherings. As an example, Anello noted that one local outbreak was recently attributed to a wedding attended by several high school teachers.

He agreed, however, that many of the student outbreaks are being attributed to social activities as well.

“First we had the football team, then we had the soccer team, then we have the ice hockey team; and those are not just one or two cases,” said Anello. “Those are 60-to-70 cases of people who are exposed. So once we have to do contact tracing on just five or six people who are positive, the contacts of all those people are multiples. There are just a lot of people that have to be contacted and quarantined.”

Despite the increase in cases, Block expressed pride in the district’s ability to contact trace successfully enough to allow most of the facilities to remain open for hybrid learning, but also stressed the importance of being responsible outside school and cooperating with contact tracers.

“Over the summer, when cases were quiet, we thought we'd have one, maybe two [cases]; but it has become really quite a full-time, day-and-night undertaking,” said Block, noting that the administration did not fully comprehend the time-consuming nature of contact tracing at the time. “Contact tracing relies on the input of people we are calling and their ability and their willingness to share information with us."

Block also alluded to the “sheer amount of time” that it takes to contact trace, stating that the district did not anticipate the volume of cases and the amount of labor that would be needed to track them.

“Not only are you contacting the individual who's tested positive, but we need to find out where the siblings are, whether those siblings have been tested, who else in the family may or may not have been tested [and] what teachers those people had been speaking to individually,” said Block, adding that contact tracers, overseen by Assistant Superintendent Lisa Steiger, have been working multiple hours every day, including weekends, to properly track each case. “It has become really a major undertaking in terms of district resources, in terms of time of personnel."

He added that there is also "a significant amount of investigation" that occurs with each new case. 

“It's not only the people that call and report to us that they have tested positive, but if we hear about a gathering or an event that happened where several of the positive cases are tied to that event, we do need to everything that we can to determine who was at that event and how many of them were Livingston students," he said. 

According to Block, the recent four-day weekend “was monumental” for the district’s contact tracers, as it allowed them some time to decompress.

“When those cases are coming in, and when you're identifying over 100, nearly 200 primary contacts—thank God, they're not all positives, but when you're getting into those kinds of numbers in terms of contacts, the amount of communication is significant,” said Block. “We're all living through this for the first time. So we’ve had some conversations about adjusting our protocols a little bit to try to streamline some things, but the accuracy and the efficiency is, obviously, very important, as this is a matter of health and safety.”

Block also explained the contact-tracing process, stating that the nurses work closely with Steiger and central office staff members to make phone calls and distribute letters to community members.

Based on feedback from the community in response to the district’s first COVID-19 case, Block noted that letters are currently being sent to the entire LPS community about cases that have directly impacted the schools—meaning people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are within the definition of a primary contact. That definition, which has changed since the beginning of the school year, currently includes any person who has had 15 minutes of cumulative contact within two days of the person either experiencing symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19.

“Back prior to our secondary schools being open, we had some cases that never impacted the schools because the schools were closed and those people just hadn't interacted with our school community,” said Block. “But now that we are open Pre-K to 12, some more of those cases are having a bigger impact…Certainly having one or two cases in a school is a trying situation, but having 14 or 15 in a school is really pretty overwhelming.”

Regarding compliance of COVID-19 protocols within the schools—such as sanitization, temperature checks, mask wearing, social distancing, etc.—Block said that he has been extremely impressed with the students and especially proud of the nursing staff. 

“If you go to any school in the morning, every child is being looked at; every temperature is being checked; if somebody hasn't met those criteria, they step aside until we can determine [what to do next]; we see our custodians walking around the buildings with spray bottles and cleaning supplies; we see checklists on the walls from the cleaning the night before, which is a new procedure for us so that the teachers and the students know from looking at the wall what has happened in that room in terms of cleaning protocols; bathrooms are being cleaned—I could go on and on, but we’re proud that those are being followed,” he said.

When it comes to inspiring compliance outside the schools, however, both LBOE members and members of the Livingston Township Council have agreed that more needs to be done to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“As someone who works in marketing professionally, delivering the message through different vehicles is more effective than via the same channel over and over again,” said LBOE member Seth Cohen, who suggested putting out a joint statement with the township council or local health department. “To have it sent from other places can only help the resonance of that message—because in the absence of that resonance, we're going to continue to have this problem, and we're going to continue to put an immense burden on our team in trying to do everything possible to keep our buildings open.”

After hearing about large, indoor Halloween parties being held at the homes of LHS students, Deputy Mayor Shawn Klein expressed that the township needs to be “a little bit more vigilant about enforcement."

“People in the community need to get a message that this is not tolerable behavior and that people are going to get hurt and maybe even killed by having these parties that are just irresponsible,” said Klein. “I just think we need to figure out ways where we start to actually enforce a little bit here.

“Through the executive orders put out by the governor, there are fines that are apropos in these situations, and people need to get a slap on the wrist when they're violating these rules. I don't want anyone to go to jail or anything, but I think if someone gets in a little bit of trouble, maybe it will wake people up and make people understand that this is not acceptable behavior and that they’re putting our entire community at risk.”

Mayor Rudy Fernandez suggested that the parents be held accountable in some way when these parties occur and that the Livingston Police Department get involved when necessary.

“The kids should know better, but an adult should certainly know better than to house these type of things,” said Fernandez. “I think if the police department gets wind of these things, they shouldn’t necessarily go over there and start hauling people off to jail, but going over there and just breaking it up and telling everybody to go home and—to the extent that they can—maybe even get information for contract-tracing purposes.”

More information on the COVID-19 response within the Livingston Public Schools system will be shared as it becomes available.

LPS has launched a new COVID-19 Dashboard outlining the number of members of the school community who have tested positive or have been required to quarantine as a result of recent cases. According to Block, the dashboard will be updated periodically in hopes that it will help keep the community informed about the impact that COVID-19 is having on Livingston’s schools.

CLICK HERE to visit the LPS COVID-19 Dashboard. 

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