About 3% of New Jersey students were at home quarantining — either because they had COVID-19 or they were exposed to a classmate who tested positive — during the first week of December, according to the state’s latest tracking data from more than 2,200 schools.
That is tens of thousands of students. And the numbers have likely climbed higher in recent weeks as COVID rates have spiked statewide and schools have asked more unvaccinated students to stay out of school and quarantine for up to 14 days.
State health officials issued new guidelines Thursday recommending schools shorten the length of student quarantines to seven to 10 days.
But, everyone is “growing weary” of seeing students quarantined at home, state Sen. Troy Singleton said in a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this week.
Instead, Singleton, D-Burlington, urged the Murphy administration to adopt a “test and stay” policy similar to those being used in schools in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and other states.
“Test and stay” programs allow students who were in “close contact” with someone who tested positive to take a rapid COVID tests over several days at school before entering the classroom. If they test negative, they can stay at school and do not need to quarantine.
“A negative test is a negative test,” Singleton wrote in his letter. “I truly believe this is a suitable compromise that protects the mental health and learning experience of the child, while simultaneously protecting overall public health.”
A spokeswoman for Murphy did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the “test and stay” proposal.
NBC News reported the Biden administration is expected to announce that it favors a “test and stay” approach after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releases two studies highlighting schools using the programs to avoid student quarantines.
The calls for new options to quarantining students come as the number of COVID cases in New Jersey schools is rising rapidly, according to the state’s COVID dashboard.
According to the data released Monday:
- School officials reported 4,998 students (up from 3,024 in the previous week) and 1,168 staff members (up from 858) tested positive in the week ending Dec. 5. However, the numbers are incomplete because only 65% of the state’s 3,500 schools reported data to the state.
- There were also 31 new in-school outbreaks for the week ending Dec. 5, bringing the total to 248 for the new school year. Outbreaks are defined as cases where three or more unrelated students or school staff members are believed to have caught COVID in the classroom or at school.
- About 4.56 students and 5.79 school staff in every 1,000 people in schools statewide the week of Dec. 5 reported testing positive. That is up from 2.66 cases among students and 4.41 cases among school staff the previous week.
It is unclear exactly how many students in New Jersey are currently quarantining because their classmates tested positive. The state numbers say about 2.7% were staying home from school due to COVID the week of Dec. 5, but it did not break down how many students were sick and how many were “close contacts” told to say home.
Under the previous state school health guidelines, unvaccinated students who are “close contacts” — meaning they spent at least 15 minutes within three feet of a classmate or teacher who tested positive — should quarantine for 14 days.
There was no option for students quarantining 14 days to go back to school earlier, even if the student tested negative and had no symptoms.
But state health officials revised those guideline Thursday. Under the new recommendations, students who are close contacts can return to school in seven days if they test negative or 10 days if they don’t get a test.
“While a 14-day quarantine period is optimal, the CDC and N.J. Department of Health recognizes the value of shortening quarantine in certain circumstances,” said state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.
However, not every school district is following the state guidelines. Some school boards have adopted less strict rules or have stopped telling asymptomatic students to quarantine at all.
In Monmouth County, Middletown’s school board voted earlier this week to allow “close contacts” of classmates with COVID to “voluntarily” quarantine. But staying home from school is not mandatory and neither is testing.
Dropping mandatory quarantines is “a rational data-driven policy that continues to put the necessary safety and security of our students as the top priority while allowing them to continue not to lose countless days for unnecessary quarantines,” said Middletown school board vice president Frank Capone.
Other school districts have been sticking with the longer quarantines. Students are either told to do their school work at home or to join Zoom or other video calls to participate in class remotely.
Singleton, the state senator calling for a “test and stay” option for schools, is not the first lawmaker to ask the Murphy administration to rethink school quarantine guidelines.
In September, state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, also called on the Murphy administration to join other states in advocating for rapid COVID tests for schools in lieu of mandatory quarantines for asymptomatic students.
“It’s time for all of us to rally and time for the administration to be more dynamic. They must be ahead of the curve, not behind it, for a policy that has been shown to be demonstrably effective and safe,” O’Scanlon said at the time.
Neither lawmaker said if the state should pick up the cost of setting up the rapid testing operation in New Jersey’s nearly 600 public school districts or if districts should pay for the tests and staff needed to monitor students.
In October, officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they were working with school districts across the nation to evaluate “test and stay” programs.
At one school in Marietta, Georgia, cars lined up in a nearby church parking lot every morning so students who would have been quarantining due to COVID exposure could instead have their noses swabbed before school.
Only about 3% of students tested positive during the weeks the program had been in place in Marietta, meaning 97% of kids were able to go to class instead of quarantining.
The “test to stay” programs are “a promising practice,” though federal officials were still evaluating the method, the CDC said at the time.
A few studies, including one by British researchers released over the summer, found schools that allowed “close contacts” to take daily COVID tests instead of quarantining did not have any more virus spreading than schools that told exposed kids to stay home.