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NJ schools reopening Q&A: Who decides if a school shuts down? What if a child gets COVID?
Lindy Washburn - NorthJersey.com
Friday, August 28, 2020

NJ schools reopening Q&A: Who decides if a school shuts down? What if a child gets COVID?

Lindy Washburn NorthJersey.com

As some school districts prepare for a return to in-person instruction, families have many questions about how administrators will decide whether to quarantine students or shut down a school building if cases of COVID-19 develop. Here are some answers.

How will schools decide whether they need to shut down, once they reopen for in-person instruction?  

The state Department of Health has issued guidelines that cover various scenarios, but the bottom line is that decisions will be made by school administrators, working with local health officials, on a case-by-case basis. Districts will also consult with their county superintendents and Catholic schools with diocesan leaders.  

A single case of COVID-19 in a school is unlikely to warrant closing an entire school, especially if the level of community transmission is not high. None of the state’s six regions currently has a high level of community transmission.

Each region’s risk level, an assessment that combines the number of cases, the percent of tests for COVID-19 that are positive, and trends in COVID-like symptoms, is posted weekly by the state Health Department. Search online for “New Jersey COVID-19 Activity Level Report.”

Some municipalities are part of regional health commissions or rely on their county for local health services. For example, in Bergen County, 12 towns are served by the Northwest Bergen Regional Health Commission, 14 towns by the Mid-Bergen Health Commission, and 35 by the Bergen County Health Department. Only Englewood, Fair Lawn, Fort Lee, Hackensack, Palisades Park, Paramus, Teaneck and Ridgewood have their own local health officers. Similarly, in Passaic County, the Clifton health officer serves three municipalities; Paterson serves five; Wayne serves two, and the county serves four.   

What if a student in my child’s class tests positive for COVID-19?

Students and staff who were in close contact with the infected person would be required to quarantine for 14 days, even if the school stays open.

Can I find out who tested positive for COVID-19, so I can ask my child how much contact they had?

School and local health officials will not release the names of those who test positive, because of privacy laws.

What if the person with COVID-19 got sick in school, or was present while they were infectious but before they were diagnosed?

The school could close temporarily — for two to five days — to enable “local health officials to gain a better understanding of the COVID-19 situation impacting the school and perform contact tracing,” the state guidelines say. This would also allow time to disinfect areas where the person was. Again, anyone in close contact with the infected person would be required to quarantine for 14 days.  

What is close contact?

Close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of a person for 10 minutes or more.  

What if two kids in the same class are diagnosed with COVID-19?

If the outbreak is limited to one class, the school could stay open while members of that class quarantine for two weeks, the state guidelines say.

But what if the student who tests positive has siblings in other classes?

The siblings of the COVID-positive patient should be tested and should quarantine for two weeks, based on their exposure. If they test positive, their close contacts must also quarantine.  

What if a school has two or more cases in different classrooms and they’re not siblings?

Administrators should consider closing the school for 14 days, based on an investigation by the local health department into the possible source of exposure, state guidelines say. If there was a large community event or an identified outside source of transmission such as a large employer, the school could stay open while the close contacts of the infected persons quarantine. But if the source of the infection cannot be determined, the school should close for two weeks.

How long should schools be closed to in-person instruction in these situations?

The state recommends closing schools for 14 days to stem outbreaks. That is believed to be the incubation period for the coronavirus. However, when the COVID-19 activity level for a region is in the red zone — very high — schools should switch to remote learning until the risk of transmission subsides.

What steps do parents need to take?

Parents or caregivers are expected to screen their children daily before school for symptoms of COVID-19 and to keep them home if any symptoms are present. Some schools will require parents to complete online symptom checklists. State guidelines say that if a child has a cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or new loss of taste or smell, they should stay home and the school should be notified. Similarly, they should stay home and the school should be notified if they have two or more of the following: fever, chills, shivers, muscle aches, headache, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, congestion or runny nose.  

Lindy Washburn is a senior healthcare reporter for NorthJersey.com. To keep up-to-date about how changes in the medical world affect the health of you and your family, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: washburn@northjersey.com Twitter: @lindywa 

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