SPARTA, NJ – The Sussex County Health Department is calling the recent number of students testing positive for COVID-19 an “outbreak,” according to acting Superintendent Patrick McQueeney.  At the outdoor board meeting on Thursday night McQueeney updated the board and community on recent coronavirus related news.

As of Friday, the Sparta public school district is reporting 16 high school students and one middle school teacher have tested positive for COIVD-19.  Earlier in the week as reports of positive test results continued to mount, McQueeney announced a two-week suspension of all fall sports and in person activities. 

Not all of the students having tested positive are athletes, according to McQueeney. There are no reports that Sparta students have been hospitalized and the district does not have information about any symptoms being suffered by students he said.

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Though specific information about children is not share publicly, community members with knowledge of those affected have said some students are reporting mild flu-like symptoms, some report only a of loss of smell and others have no symptoms.

Due to the outbreak, kindergarten and first grade students will have to wait an additional week to return to school.  McQueeney said at the meeting on Thursday, the “Cohort B would begin in person hybrid instruction on October 5.” 

The second through fifth grade children in Cohort A will go back on October 12, as announced last week.  There are no plans yet for high school and middle school students to return to in-person instruction, McQueeney said at the meeting. 

Requests for Leaves of Absence

In response to parent inquires at the meeting on Thursday, McQueeney said the district had received 108 requests for leaves of absence by teachers.  The initial wave of approximately 60 requests grew after the decision to go to an all remote schedule, as teachers who are also Sparta parents, had to be home with their children.

McQueeney said the administrators had been reviewing the requests made under the Family Medical Leave Act and Families First Coronavirus Response Act or FFRCA requests.  They were beginning with the youngest grades first he said, reporting they were able to make accommodations to get sufficient staff back to get students back in.

Accommodations – Getting Back Into School

The principals and directors are having conversations with the staff members who have applied for leave to find out what accommodations they need to be able to feel comfortable teaching children in their classrooms the superintendent said in an interview. 

The principals have experience and information about their buildings. Interim Director of Special Services Suzanne Olimpio, Director of Student Services Saskia Brown and Director of Operations Michael Gregory form a sort of Cabinet, McQueeney said, advising with a broader view of the district.

According to McQueeney the accommodations vary from person to person, classroom to classroom and the district is doing their best to meet the requests. He said some have had a few requests and others have had extensive lists.

McQueeney said they are required to meet “all reasonable requests.”  So far, he said, there have not been any requests “that impact the kids.”

Some of the teacher’s requests for accommodations include extra shields, extra plexiglass, additional ventilation, individual air filters and not having to sharing a room, according to McQueeney.  The administrators continue to talk with the teachers about accommodations working through the grade levels and he is “confident it will be okay” for the second through fifth grade children to return as scheduled.

Role of Sports

Questions were raised at the board of education meeting about the focus on athletics, while students are learning remotely.  The lively discussion was led by board member Kate Matteson asking for board members to share their thoughts about reopening.

Matteson said she was concerned that the “district did not open for live instruction for most… but we still have moved forward with sports.  We find ourselves in a situation where those kinds of gatherings, whether social or sports are hurting our chances of opening.”

Board member Joanne Hoover said sports are being governed by protocols established by the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association or NJSIAA. 

“I absolutely agree. Our students should be in school,” Hoover said concerned they will suffer by staying on a remote schedule.

“There’s the virtual option,” Hoover said. “If you’re 100% against it you choose the virtual option. If you feel safe bringing your kids into school which we know is safe… Students should be in school quickly.”

“I’m as eager as anyone else to get the schools,” Matteson said.

Board member Robert Zywicki said, “Sports is not the cause.  It’s the other activities in the community that is causing community spread…Our schools are open, they are safe, we do have teachers are working in the build, sports is not a reason to not bring kids back.  We need to have a conversation in our community about wearing masks and social distancing so that we can get our kids back in school and we can keep playing sports.”

“Sports are happening because they are a controlled environment and staff was sufficient to safely provide for practices to go on,” McQueeney said. Students have not been able to return to school, however, “because there was sufficient staff to safely bring students back to the classroom.”