With the reopening of New Jersey’s public schools less than two months away, school districts are facing plenty of big questions as they race to complete their plans to welcome 1.4 million students back to class.
How many days a week will students be in class? How will bus schedules and classrooms be arranged so students stay 6 feet apart? Will schools be able to offer lunch and recess while ensuring students stay socially distant?
And should teachers or students — or both — get COVID-19 tests to prevent outbreaks?
State officials issued guidelines on reopening schools earlier this month, but they are leaving most of the details to New Jersey’s more than 500 school districts to craft on their own.
Here’s what state and federal officials are saying about testing:
Should everyone be required to get a coronavirus test before the start of the school year?
Absolutely not, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC’s guidelines for reopening schools say the agency “does not recommend universal testing of all students and staff.”
Universal COVID-19 testing for all students and staff in a school building has not been systematically studied and it is unclear if it would do anything more to prevent transmission beyond social distancing, masks and other measures already in place, federal experts say.
Finding a way to get every student and teacher tested may also be too big a task for schools.
“Implementation of a universal approach to testing in schools may pose challenges, such as the lack of infrastructure to support routine testing and follow up in the school setting, unknown acceptability of this testing approach among students, parents, and staff, lack of dedicated resources, practical considerations related to testing minors and potential disruption in the educational environment,” the CDC says.
Will New Jersey education officials require coronavirus tests or screenings?
The guidelines issued by the state Department of Education — called “The Road Back” — give school districts the freedom to come up with their own reopening plans. But the minimum standards set by the state make no mention of regular coronavirus testing or antibody tests for teachers or students.
Instead, the guidelines say students must be screened regularly for high temperatures, coughing and other symptoms of COVID-19.
“School districts must adopt a policy for safely and respectfully screening students and employees for symptoms of and history of exposure to COVID-19. Students and staff with symptoms related to COVID-19 must be safely and respectfully isolated from others,” the state guidelines say.
The screenings may include visual checks and temperature scans as students enter the school building for the day or confirming with families that students are free of COVID-19 symptoms, according to the minimum standards.
Teachers will also be required to wear masks and students will be strongly encouraged, but not required, to wear face coverings all day.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is asking for similar daily temperature checks for all students, teachers and staff, including before students board buses.
What happens when people get sick? Will they be required to get a COVID test to return to school?
Schools need to set up “an isolation space” for students or staff members who have coronavirus symptoms where they must stay until they can go home, according to the minimum guidelines.
The school district needs to report anyone who tests positive to local health officials for contact tracing. But the state guidelines do not say schools must require a COVID-19 test before students or teachers can return to school.
Does New Jersey have the capacity for mass testing?
Even if New Jersey’s school districts required coronavirus testing for students and teachers before the start of the school year, it is unlikely the state would have the capacity to test 1.4 million public school students, 116,000 full-time classroom teachers and other school staff.
Gov. Phil Murphy has been urging people to take advantage of the growing number of testing options in the state and get tested if you have symptoms or have been in crowds or other situations where you might have been exposed to the virus.
“We’ve got the capacity. Let’s use it,” Murphy said Friday.
However, New Jersey currently only has the capacity to test about 20,000 people a day, said Judith Persichilli, the state’s health commissioner.
So far, New Jersey has only tested about 1 million people since the start of the pandemic, Persichilli said. That is less than the total number of school-age students in the state.
Nationwide, there has been relatively little testing of children because only a small percentage of kids have gotten sick with the coronavirus, experts say. Children under age 10 remain the lowest tested portion of the population and their role in spreading the virus has not been thoroughly studied, according to the CDC.
When will I hear my school district’s reopening plan?
Some school districts have begun holding school board meetings and parent forums to discuss their reopening plans.
All school districts are required under the state guidelines to inform families of their plans at least four weeks before the first day of school. For most districts, that means families should get an email or other communication by early August with the detailed plan.
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