WESTFIELD, NJ — There was no handshaking at simultaneous meetings of the school board and Town Council Tuesday as local officials provided updates on the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.

Despite wide public concern about the virus, the town's health officer when briefing the council took a measured approach in discussing the disease on the same evening school officials separately described preparations for distance learning.

“People can stay relatively calm. New Jersey has had some cases. Union County has one confirmed case,” said Megan Avallone, noting that the town’s health department has a plan in place that is fresh in their minds from when H1N1 broke out in 2009.

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“I’m fully confident that my staff and I, even if we get more cases, are fully equipped to handle them,” she added.

Town officials have been in contact with long term care providers, acute care centers, complete care providers, schools and private health care providers, Avallone. The town is reviewing its pandemic plan, she said. In addition, select local officials will be listening into conference calls with the Union County Prosecutor’s Office every day at noon for updates on coronavirus, Avallone said.

“People should call their healthcare provider and don’t go to emergency services unless it’s truly an emergency,” she said.

Distance Learning Plans in the Works

To prepare for remote learning in the anticipated event of prolonged building closures, the school district had emailed parents Tuesday morning with a “Home Access Technology Survey” and as of 4 p.m., school officials had received 2,573 responses, Superintendent Margaret Dolan said. There are about 6,200 students enrolled in the K-12 district’s schools.

“Over 99% of respondents answered that they have internet access, which is certainly a key component to distance learning should we need to close more than one of our schools,” Dolan said. “We will be reaching out to those families who have indicated that they will need assistance with either devices or internet access.”

UPDATE: Coronavirus: Westfield Schools set a Half-Day Amid ‘Disconcerting’ News Barrage, Super Says

The district, she said, continues to develop its plan for teaching students remotely but would not close unless given specific instruction from the state or local health officials, something required to have distance learning instruction count toward the state-required 180 days of instruction. Dolan indicated the district is still forming those plans for distance learning.

“The administrators and representative supervisors are working on plans, and they will be revealed to teachers and administrators in the coming days,” she said.

While the school board approved a field trip to New York City for the staff of the Westfield High School student newspaper, the Hi’s Eye, the superintendent said that approval is contingent on the trip not be impacted by COVID-19.

“Yes, you’re approving it, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be looking at it to make sure that it is a good idea,” Dolan told the board.

MORE: Rutgers Cancels Classes, Will Move to Online Due to Coronovirus

The updates Tuesday came as the number of “presumed positive” cases of the coronavirus statewide rose to 15 and New Jersey saw its first death by the disease, according to the state Health Department. The 69-year-old man died at Hackensack University Medical Center Tuesday morning, state officials said.

The closest case of the novel coronavirus to Westfield reported as of Tuesday was a 48-year-old man from Berkeley Heights.

“The patient’s whereabouts did not pose a public health risk to the community,” said Berkeley Heights Mayor Angie Devanney in a statement. “Any person at risk was immediately notified and advised to self-quarantine by our health officer, who is aggressively monitoring this case.”

The Westfield Regional Health Department is posting information about COVID-19 here.

The Public School District in Westfield is posting information about COVID-19 here.

Members of the public with questions about COVID-19 can call the New Jersey Department of Health Novel Coronavirus Call Center 24/7 at 1-800-222-1222. The call center is open 24/7 and offers guidance in several languages.

Email Matt Kadosh at mkadosh@tapinto.net | Twitter: @MattKadosh.
Email Lindsey Kelleher at lindsey@tapinto.net | Twitter: @LindseyKelleher

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