Eastern addresses COVID concerns at parent meeting

Contingency plans are based on case numbers in state and region

Eastern Regional High School held a virtual parent conference on Aug. 24 where Superintendent Robert Cloutier addressed questions and concerns on the upcoming school year.

The meeting had a question-and-answer format, but Cloutier also clarified several topics and scenarios that could happen in the school year. He said the district would follow  Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders and seek state guidance as the school year begins. The full meeting is available on Eastern Regional High School’s YouTube channel.

Masks

Murphy’s Aug. 9 order requires masks for all students, staff and visitors inside a school building. The order also lists several exemptions, including exposure to extreme heat, breathing trouble, eating or drinking, playing a musical instrument without obstruction and participation in high intensity physical activities.

Vaccination

Murphy’s Aug. 23 executive order requires all school employees to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or submit to weekly testing. Students are not affected. “No students will be identified as vaccinated or unvaccinated unless there’s a contact tracing, and we have to identify which students are vaccinated for quarantine purposes,” Cloutier said.

In person learning

Masks will be required for everyone (students, visitors and staff) inside the building. Students will be able to use outdoor and other large spaces for lunch. Cloutier announced that for the first time in several years, enrollment has reached 2,000 students. Though the school intends to use mitigation measures where possible, social distancing will likely not be possible for most classrooms given the number of students and the size of the rooms. The school will also use fans and will open windows to help with air circulation.

Remote learning

Students were able to learn remotely last year after the governor declared a public health emergency. Murphy then announced on May 17 that schools will be required to provide full-time, in person instruction beginning in the fall. As of Aug. 26, Eastern has  not offered remote learning.

“We have retained full capacity to go in any direction we need to go in terms of switching back to remote if it becomes necessary,” the superintendent said.

Quarantine

Vaccinated students will only need to quarantine if they test positive for COVID or are symptomatic, in which case they would need to be tested. If the student tests negative but is symptomatic, he or she can return to school after recovery.

“The general message is, ‘Stay home when you’re sick,’” Cloutier said.

According to guidance from the state Department of Health and Education on Aug. 20, the length of quarantine for an individual depends on the community transmission rate. The state has four levels of risk: low, moderate, high and very high. New Jersey is currently in the yellow, or moderate risk phase. The minimum quarantine for that phase  is 10 days, or seven days with a negative test result collected at five to seven days. If the state goes back into high risk, or orange, students will have to quarantine for a minimum of 14 days. The quarantine timeframes are available at https://www.state.nj.us/health/cd/documents/topics/NCOV/COVID_updated_quarantine_timeframes.pdf.

“If two students are fully masked, and one tests positive for COVID but the other does not have any symptoms and is not positive, the second student does not have to quarantine,” Cloutier explained. “There is less disruption under the new guidelines.”

He also noted that days spent in quarantine will be considered an excused absence  and will not affect graduation requirements for attendance.

Though the superintendent touched briefly on what education in quarantine will look like without a remote option, he did not explicitly share those plans.

“We’re looking at a few models,” he noted. “We’ll have more information on that coming out. We’re talking with a few other school districts with a range of possibilities for what works best for us. A lot of it depends on the overall circumstances.”

The full health and safety guidelines for 2021-2022 can be viewed at https://www.nj.gov/education/roadforward/docs/HealthAndSafetyGuidanceSY2122.pdf