A third of New Jersey's public schools closed and switched to remote learning after their winter break as COVID cases continue to increase to the highest numbers since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020.
The decisions to pivot to remote learning were made at the local level by school officials, as Gov. Phil Murphy reiterated on Monday that he had "no intention or plan" to shut down or close school buildings. He said he would continue to leave it to school administrators to make those decisions after consulting with local health departments.
As of Tuesday night, 861 of 2,679 schools, including charter and renaissance schools and private schools that serve students with disabilities, have opted to go remote or close, citing COVID-related reasons, the state Department of Education said.
NJ school masks: Mandate expires Jan. 11. Teachers, parents ask Murphy to extend it.
While the risk of COVID is the obvious reason, staffing shortages exacerbated by the pandemic appear to be driving many of the closures.
The state's COVID dashboard shows that 31,000 people tested positive on Jan. 5 this year, compared with 5,400 on the same day last year. In schools, positivity numbers for staff and students stayed low, between 1.4 cases and 3 cases per 1,000, until mid-November and then began to climb, with a sharp uptick in numbers of teachers and staff testing positive in late December.
In the week ending Dec. 26, the number of staff members who tested positive was 23 per 1,000, nearly double from the previous week, and compared with a slower rise in cases among students. The omicron variant has also been causing more upper respiratory tract illness in unvaccinated children than previous variants, some experts have warned. State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said this week that pediatric hospitalizations with confirmed COVID diagnoses have been the highest since the pandemic hit.
Disruptions to in-person learning are not limited to schools going remote. Some are operating on half-day schedules, because of staff shortages and to minimize virus spread during lunch and cafeteria hours.
Instruction in some cases is turning hybrid, with quarantining students being delivered instruction in their homes through remote learning, and in-person students attending in class. Those who attend school are invited to return in the afternoon for extracurricular activities in some districts.
Watchung Hills Regional School District in Central Jersey's Somerset County announced that it would operate on an early-dismissal schedule for the first week after reopening, with remote instruction being provided in the afternoon to students who are required to stay home for COVID-related reasons and in-person help within school to others, according to an email sent to parents.
Bergen County's Lodi school district will operate remotely from Jan. 10 to 24. Superintendent Douglas Petty said staffing has been the "greatest obstacle."
"Between COVID-19-positive cases, those that are required to quarantine and the difficulty in obtaining substitutes, it has been increasingly difficult to safely manage and effectively operate our schools. Our teachers have done an amazing job going above and beyond to fill the vacancies, but we're simply at a critical point where we need to make the pivot to a full remote learning model to assist in containing the spread and allow us to return to in-person learning in a safe and positive way," he said.
Paterson schools announced in December that they would operate remotely until Jan. 18, the day after the holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. While rising COVID cases due to multiple variants were the main reason for closing, Paterson Schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer said the district is also affected by the nationwide lack of nurses.
NJ schools going remote: List of schools closing due to COVID concerns. See who is remote.
“There is a shortage of nurses throughout the state and the nation,” Shafer said, alluding to the burden faced by her team as it manages the district's nursing needs. School nurses have to contact-trace and notify families when there is a school-related COVID exposure, in addition to regular duties.
Schools in South Orange-Maplewood, River Dell Regional, Denville, Hoboken, Elmwood Park, Hackensack, North Arlington, Northvale, APSSD, Millburn, Irvington, Bayonne, Jersey City, Kearny, North Bergen, Union City, Weehawken, West New York, Union Township, Newark, East Orange, Paterson, Sparta and Lodi have all announced closures.
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: Third of NJ school districts going remote as COVID cases rise