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COVID-19 booster vaccine doses may become another requirement for schools to deal with, under the latest guidance coming from the state Department of Health.
The updated guidance recommends that students 12 and older without a booster shot, even if vaccinated with two doses, should stay home if they are exposed to the virus in school.
The Department of Health guidance recommendations are just that, and local school districts have the final say on whether they adopt them. If they choose to do so, the new guidance goes into effect on Feb. 1.
In his latest public COVID-19 briefing on Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy did not discuss the latest recommendations issued on Jan. 19.
The previous recommendations, in place since March 2021, allowed "close contacts" to remain in school as long as they were fully vaccinated with two doses of Moderna or Pfizer or a single dose of Johnson & Johnson and were asymptomatic.
A spokesperson for the state Health Department said the new recommendations follow this month's update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's quarantine guidelines that include vaccinated and boosted people. These come as omicron cases in the state have dramatically dropped after a surge that led a third of the state’s public schools to go remote after winter break.
Quarantine guidelines in schools: NJ shortens COVID quarantine for schools to 5 days, but medical experts warn of risk
Murphy has said he wants to keep students in school as much as possible, but with the new recommendations, students without a booster shot will have to stay home if they have come in contact with the virus.
Moorestown parent Claudine Morano said her district has yet to adopt the most recent recommendations. If it does, she is concerned that her 14-year-old son, who is fully vaccinated but without a booster, may have to miss school. "This is just kind of going to force our hand," she said.
She resisted boosting her son even though everyone else in her family has gotten the shot. Last week, her son and his friends, who eat at the same lunch table, were able to stay in school even after they were identified as close contacts to a virus case, because they are vaccinated and did not have symptoms.
“He’s 14, he’s double-vaccinated, he’s not boosted. He’s never been a close contact, all the way from last spring till now. Just last week, he was. Every single kid on his lunch table is his friend and is not boosted. So none of them have to quarantine. That’s just an example of six kids that would now have to be quarantined for five days that wouldn’t have before," Morano said.
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Teachers and staff who work for districts that adopt the new guidance will also be subject to the requirement, which comes at a time when state schools are experiencing staff shortages made worse by the pandemic. Many schools informed parents in December that they were likely to go remote or operate on shorter schedules in the first weeks of 2022 because of anticipated staff shortages — a problem that lawmakers have been working to address.
Last week, Murphy signed legislation to allow retired teachers to return to work while continuing to collect a pension.
Garfield Schools Superintendent Anna Sciacca said she has informed her teachers about the new guidance, which her district plans to implement. "We did make the staff aware that if you don't have the booster, you would have to quarantine if identified as a close contact," she said.
She said receiving regular health recommendations from the state sometimes puts her in a "predicament."
“We are already familiar with having to make these difficult decisions that involve health and safety, and it hasn’t really gotten any easier for us," Sciacca said. "These decisions continue to be very challenging, and we want to prioritize health and safety, and so that is why for the most part we will go with the CDC, but anything that is not working for the district is discussed with our team.”
The guidance was issued on the same day Murphy announced vaccine and booster mandates for all health care workers employed by the state, including contractors and permanent employees.
Schools have until Feb. 1 to implement the new criteria for staff and students ages 12 to 17.
There is an exception for schools that have adopted recently provided test-to-stay protocols, which the state issued at the beginning of the year. Test-to-stay allows unvaccinated or partially vaccinated children to stay in school as long as they test regularly for COVID-19 and have no symptoms. Children and staff in these schools who are not boosted can remain in school, according to the guidance.
Unvaccinated children and adults must continue to stay home if they are in close contact with an infected person in school.
The CDC's definition of "fully vaccinated" remains unchanged and is anyone who has completed the initial series of vaccines.
Dr. Edward Lifshitz, medical director of the Health Department's Communicable Disease Service, said in a statement that studies show that after a person is vaccinated against COVID-19, protection against the virus and the ability to prevent infection with variants may decrease over time.
The emergence of the omicron variant further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19, Lifshitz said. Data from clinical trials showed that a booster shot increased the immune response in trial participants who finished a Pfizer or Moderna primary series six months earlier or who received a Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine two months earlier. With an increased immune response, people should have improved protection against getting infected or developing severe disease, he said.
Some European countries, including Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom, have begun to consider adopting COVID-19 health policies that lean toward accepting the virus and moving from “crisis mode to control mode,” said reporting by the Associated Press.
On Monday, Murphy said there was "a real shot" at lifting the school mask mandate before the end of the school year.
Mary Ann Koruth covers education for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about New Jersey's schools and how it affects your children, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ guidance for non-boosted kids, staff exposed to COVID in school