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Schools Struggle with COVID-19 Intrusion

Schools Announce Reopening Plans

By Vince Conti

To access the Herald’s local coronavirus/COVID-19 coverage, click here.
COURT HOUSE – Health officials Nov. 20 warned county school superintendents that the county was moving into a high-risk level for community COVID-19 transmission.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the state Department of Health developed a regional risk matrix (https://bit.ly/2JYL6L4) to guide schools as they decide on actions that should be taken based on the level of risk in their region. 
At high-level risk, schools are advised to consider moving to all-remote learning. Those that do not should follow the guidance that further restricts interactions in the school environment.
The problem confronting county school districts is less one caused by the in-school transmission of the virus, as it is one based on the impact of widespread community circulation of the virus.
The New Jersey COVID-19 dashboard shows 19 Cape May County cases linked to in-school transmission, with seven small outbreaks since the schools reopened. 
In that same period, the second wave of new COVID-19 cases washed over the county, largely in community transmission.
As of Dec. 2, Ocean City High School reported 282 students and staff in quarantine, with 32 confirmed positive cases. In late November, Lower Township Elementary School District had four students at its Sandman School test positive, but 91 students were in quarantine based on CDC guidelines.
The notice to families from Lower Cape May Regional (LCMR) School District, announcing schools would move to all-virtual instruction from Dec. 1 until Dec. 14, illustrates the impact of quarantines on the schools. This was followed by an earlier-than-expected return to the district’s hybrid model, beginning Dec. 7. 
The reason given for the closure was “staff shortages due to required quarantine.” The quick return to hybrid instructions was because most professional and support staff were able to return earlier than expected. 
The pivot at LCMR is typical of the agility required of school officials this year. School districts across the county had to adjust to the unpredictable spread of the virus.
In Cape May, Principal Zachary Palombo informed parents that the school remained open for in-person instruction, but he also warned that “it is imperative to start making preparations for your student to return to the virtual setting in the very near future.” He further warned that the decision to go virtual “could be made abruptly.” 
As of Dec. 7, the school’s website shows 18 students and 10 staff in quarantine, with one positive test of a staff member. 
At West Cape May Elementary School, Superintendent Robert Garguilo, who serves in the same role in Cape May, released the same caution that “a school closure can be issued anytime.” 
Garguilo said the district is “committed to keeping the building open as long as we safely can, but will transition to virtual learning when directed.” As of Dec. 3, West Cape May Elementary School had one student and one staff member in quarantine.
Susan Speirs, superintendent, Dennis Township School District, echoed the concern over rapidly changing circumstances. “It is likely changes will continue to occur in our county and our township in regard to the spread of COVID-19.” 
She added that the district will “reevaluate how we can safely provide in-person schooling.” 
The state’s weekly COVID-19 Activity Level Reports (https://bit.ly/2VVheSp) placed the state in the high-risk category. While this level advises the schools to consider moving to virtual instruction, the movement to the final very high-risk category would require that they do so. 
This report is not focused on in-school transmission issues, rather it is a measure of the level of community spread and the danger that presents for schools.
Ocean City Superintendent Kathleen Taylor urged that everyone “does our part to protect ourselves and others from the spread of COVID-19.” 
Only then, as Taylor adds, will “we be able to maintain in-person student schedules, as that is always our goal.” 
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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