Quarantined students — out of school, out of reach of help if they need it


NJ Spotlight News

Just 9% of Newark students in grades 2-8 met math expectations last school year, according to test data. It’s the first indication of how much the pandemic decimated Newark students’ learning.


For many schools across New Jersey, one of the recent challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic has not been the number of students infected by the virus but the number quarantined to avoid any spread.

“These kids are sitting at home and many of them struggling,” said Charles Sampson, superintendent of Freehold Regional High Schools at a meeting this week of suburban school leaders.

“Our schools, our discipline, our suicide ideation and high-end disciplinary actions are unlike anything I have ever seen in my six high schools,” Sampson said. “It is probably quadrupled, and frankly I attribute that to students being home and being detached from schools.”

On Thursday, the Murphy administration tried to heed districts’ concerns and loosened some of its guidance on quarantines. In a 17-page document released by the state Department of Health, the administration reduced the length of quarantine for an unvaccinated student from as many as 14 days to seven days after coming in contact with an infected individual.

The change in the guidance — which is not mandatory for districts but still widely followed – mirrors that of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state officials said. It comes as the number of new cases has soared, including in New Jersey, but officials said it balanced the case numbers with the need to keep students in school.

“While a 14-day quarantine period is optimal, the CDC and NJ Department of Health recognizes the value of shortening quarantine in certain circumstances,” said state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.

But it is not clear if that will solve the problem of hundreds, if not thousands, of students absent on a given day due to their individual districts’ quarantine restrictions, most of those restrictions driven by the state’s guidance.

Some districts have said as many as 5% of their enrollment are in quarantine. The state’s latest data from Dec. 5 said more than 35,000 were quarantined since the start of the year, although that also included infected students.

Even before Thursday’s action, school leaders have pressed for looser guidance still, including a “test-to-stay” option that would allow students to return once testing negative. Different versions of the practice have been adopted in at least a half-dozen other states such as Massachusetts, California and Illinois, as well as extensively in Great Britain.

But the latest guidance stopped short of that move, maintaining that a negative test could reduce quarantine time but not eliminate it. And the ultimate solution, they said, is for students to be vaccinated.

“Vaccination continues to provide the best protection against COVID-19, preventing transmission in school, and eliminating the need to quarantine following an exposure,” Persichilli said.

The quarantine restrictions were very much the focus of a forum this week of school leaders in the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the advocacy group representing mostly suburban districts.

The planned agenda of the meeting was broader education issues, and this reporter was a featured speaker. But it quickly turned to COVID matters and specifically quarantine guidance and whether districts are even following the state’s guidance, before or after the changes.

“For a good number of us, we have never gone beyond the 10 days, even in high risk” Sampson led off. “There are going to be a lot of districts, in fact there already are a number of districts that have changed their quarantine policies, they are just not making it public.”

But a handful of them apparently are making it public, including Gov. Phil Murphy’s hometown of Middletown, where the school board this week voted to make any quarantining voluntary.

Others said that varying guidance from local and county health officials have also complicated the situation, especially in districts that span municipal lines. David Aderhold, superintendent of West Windsor-Plainsboro schools, said he has to keep up with different municipal and county offices.

“It really does come down to each district’s implementation,” he said. “It really is a wild west out here.”

One Monmouth County superintendent of a K-8 district said he has an elementary school student now on her third quarantine. “She keeps coming back for two days and then out again,” he said. “That’s a month of school, and I just can’t let that happen anymore.”

He said he has recommended to his school board a “test-to-stay” protocol, starting in January. “It’s crossing a line from following recommendations to advocating for kids and getting them in school,” he said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-17 03:00:58 -0800