NJ officials: Schools should prep for possible coronavirus outbreak, including plans for closures and online learning

New Jersey schools should plan for a possible coronavirus outbreak in their communities, the state said Monday, even as officials insisted that the risk of infection remains low.

New Jersey has had no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus that has led to six U.S. deaths as of Monday. State officials sought to ease mounting anxieties about the virus, which has now been linked to 100 cases in the U.S. and has infected more than 90,000 people worldwide. 

Globally, few children have come down with the illness and their cases have tended to be mild, officials said. But the virus is likely to continue spreading, which means schools should have plans ready in case of a local outbreak, according to the state health department’s updated guidance.

Ahead of a possible outbreak, schools should establish procedures to quickly send home sick students, provide staff training on preventative measures, and remind students about respiratory hygiene, such as handwashing and how to cover coughs, according to the state’s recommendations. Schools should also prepare to close, cancel events, and provide home instruction in the case of an outbreak, though there is no present cause to close schools, the guidance document says.

“Schools and businesses should be preparing for ill students and staff,” said Lisa McHugh, who oversees infectious diseases at the state health department, at a press conference Monday with Gov. Phil Murphy and the state’s education and health commissioners. Another official added that districts and colleges should come up with plans to limit mass gatherings and provide online classes, if necessary.

It was unclear Monday whether Newark, the state’s largest school district, has a plan. Last week, the district posted a virus factsheet on its website but did not provide any information about precautions taken by the district or individual schools, unlike other districts that have posted information about their prevention efforts. A Newark Public Schools spokeswoman did not respond to multiple emails last week and Monday inquiring about the district’s outbreak preparation.

Meanwhile, the city health department has shared its coronavirus response plan with Newark’s schools chief “as a guide for responding to an outbreak in the Newark Public Schools,” said Dr. Mark Wade, director of the city Department of Health & Community Wellness, in a statement provided by City Hall. The city’s plan is based on guidance from federal and state agencies.

Wade has been in contact with Superintendent Roger León and gave him a coronavirus guide to send home with students, the statement said. And Wade will speak with school principals at a meeting later this week hosted by León.

In New Jersey, all eight people who have been tested for the coronavirus have been cleared, officials said Monday, adding that an additional person was due to undergo testing. In early February, Murphy convened a coronavirus task force with leaders from multiple agencies, including the education department, that meets weekly to plan and coordinate response efforts. 

The state is creating a special committee that will focus on school emergency preparedness, officials said Monday. And the governor plans to call school superintendents and higher education leaders this week to brief them on outbreak preparations.

“We’ve been at this for weeks and we’re prepared, but we’re staying vigilant,” Murphy said at the press conference, adding that the overall risk of contracting the illness remains low for New Jersey residents.

There are currently no vaccines or medications for COVID-19, whose symptoms include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. 

If any New Jersey students become infected, districts may be responsible for continuing to educate them while they recover.

State rules require districts to provide home instruction to students who can’t attend school for certain reasons, such as a medical condition or a suspension. Certified teachers must lead the lessons, which can be conducted in person or through online programs. 

As part of its coronavirus response, the state education department is monitoring districts to make sure schools provide off-site education when needed, officials said Monday.

While that approach may work for individual students who become ill, it’s unclear whether districts are prepared to offer online lessons to a large number of students. Already, the state teachers union has raised concerns about reaching students whose families lack home computers or internet access. Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon said he was not sure Newark was ready to offer online lessons to students if schools have to close because of an outbreak.

“The city has made big strides in terms of providing Wi-Fi connections and things of that nature,” he told Chalkbeat, “but it’s never been tried at that magnitude.”

State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet did not address those concerns at Monday’s press conference, where he said that schools would continue to educate students remotely in the event of forced closures. But he acknowledged that having to shut down due to an outbreak, rather than a natural disaster, would be a new experience for many schools.

“We normally have that process in place and they have protocols,” Repollet said. “However, this is something different because now the school closure may be of a health concern, rather than Superstorm Sandy.”

Some districts have already begun taking precautions, which they outlined in public notices.

In Montclair, school nurses are giving classroom lessons on how to stop the spread of germs, while any students with high fevers and severe respiratory symptoms will be kept out of school, according to a Feb. 28 letter to the community from the acting superintendent. 

In West Orange, schools have identified isolated spots where they can send students with flu-like symptoms until they are taken home, according to a Feb. 27 letter from the superintendent. The district is also making sure that school health offices are stocked with face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer, the letter says.

On Monday, state officials said the public could help prevent the spread of illnesses such as the flu and potentially the coronavirus by washing their hands, avoiding contact with sick people, and staying home when ill. They also pointed residents to a state website with coronavirus information, and a 24-hour hotline at 1-800-222-1222 where experts can answer questions about the virus.

“We understand that the public is concerned,” said state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “But I want to assure you that we are taking all steps available to protect the residents of New Jersey.”