WESTFIELD, NJ — A neighborhood parade held by an elementary school in Westfield to help connect students and staff physically separated during remote learning has raised questions about what counts as proper social distancing.

The principal of Washington Elementary School which held the 20-minute-long neighborhood parade Monday to give teachers and students the chance to see each other from a distance said he advised participants to abide by physical distancing practices.

School officials modeled the event after similar parades held across the state and nation during the coronavirus pandemic. The parade, however, came amid a statewide stay-at-home order and drew criticism from the mayor and members of the public. Experts in the fields of global health and science communication gave the event mixed reviews. 

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Suzanne Willard is an associate dean of global health at the Rutgers University School of Nursing. She is also a grandmother.

“I have a 9-year-old granddaughter,” Willard said after viewing video of the event in Westfield. “The first week she was in tears because she really missed school. It has a great impact. This can be a way of outreaching safely, but you could not do this a high-density area.”

Still, Willard noted that with confirmed COVID-19 cases rising, authorities have ordered members of the public to stay at home except for when fulfilling certain essential needs.

“What is the governor saying?” Willard said. “If he said stay at home, then the parade is not staying at home.”

Gov. Phil Murphy's stay-at-home order is based in the science of social distancing.

“The bottom line is you don’t want to get sick and die,” Willard said. People can become exposed to the virus and then transmit COVID-19 even while not experiencing symptoms, she said.

One infected person gathering with 10 people can infect those people, leading to an exponential increase in spreading the virus, Willard said.

“Ten people go out and talk to 10 more people, and then we’re up to 1,000 people infected,” she said.

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While Willard said it is hard for people to change their behavior as a result something they cannot see, it is important to do so.

“Keep 6 feet apart,” she said, citing the CDC guideline. “You can you be out in the fresh air, absolutely, but keep your distance. You’re not running in packs. You’re not playing basketball. You have to be very cognizant of where we are.”

School officials in Westfield were aware of the orders for physical distancing in place and had advised of those needs in an email to parents. Washington Elementary School Principal Andrew Perry explained by phone that he did not anticipate issues.

“There are going to be tons of parents, and I think everyone is well aware of physical distancing,” Perry said prior to the parade. “I’m not expecting any difficulties.”

At the parade, some families could be seen gathered on sidewalks — parents next to children. Others remained at their doorsteps amid officials’ calls for social distancing. Within hours of the parade, people posted photos to social media showing residents gathered on local streets in alleged violations of social distancing guidelines.

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Perry said he got the idea for the event after learning about such parades held at schools across the country. In New Jersey, those have included one in Princeton held March 27 and another held in Nutley Thursday, after Westfield’s event.

At least in Westfield, Washington School's parade will stand out as a unique moment. “No more parades are planned,” said Mary Ann McGann, spokeswoman for the school district.

Robert Pyatt, an assistant professor of genetics at Kean University, has conducted extensive research into communicating scientific knowledge to the public. Pyatt said it would not be his role to criticize Westfield school officials. He did, however, discuss the complex public messaging challenge coronavirus presents.

“The media is doing a good job of communicating the messages from our medical experts,” Pyatt said. “It’s a fine line they have to balance between overwhelming people with the message and making sure everyone hears it.”

The professor had just gotten home from the ShopRite in Somerville Thursday afternoon where he picked up some essential items.

“We can’t be 100% locked away in our homes for … no matter how long this takes,” Pyatt said. Under the governor’s stay-at-home order, supermarkets are considered essential and remain open with physical distancing measures in place.

He still recommends people be cautious.

Pyatt said he visited the grocery store at a time when he anticipated it would not be crowded. It appeared proper social distancing practices were being kept, he said.

Pyatt advises that we approach coronavirus with a combination of science and compassion.

“If we do both of those, we’ll help flatten that curve, and we’ll reduce the number of coronavirus cases that we have,” he said.

Email Matt Kadosh at mkadosh@tapinto.net | Twitter: @MattKadosh