Updated COVID-19 Guidance for NJ School Districts

Updated COVID-19 Guidance for NJ School Districts

Navigating COVID-19 continues to be a challenge for New Jersey school districts...

Navigating COVID-19 continues to be a challenge for New Jersey school districts. When implementing policies for the 2021-2022 school year, it is important to recognize that guidance continues to evolve, and policies may need to be adjusted accordingly.  

In recent weeks, the New Jersey Department of Education and New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) issued updated COVID-19 guidance for the new school year. Topics addressed by the agencies include public health recommendations for schools, including mask policies, COVID-19 testing, and educating quarantined students.

Public Health Recommendations for Schools

On August 31, 2021, the NJDOH published updated public health recommendations for school settings. The NJDOH guidance states that the recommendations should be used by local health departments to aid schools in developing a layered prevention strategy to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. “Schools should implement as many layers as feasible, although the absence of one or more of the strategies outlined in this document does not preclude the reopening of a school facility for full-day in-person operation with all enrolled students and staff present.”

The NJDOH also cautions that the guidance is based on what is currently known about the transmission and severity of COVID-19 and is subject to change as additional information is known. Below are several key takeaways:

  • Masks: Masks must be worn indoors by staff, students, and visitors in all situations except as delineated in Executive Order 251 (EO 251). With regard to school transportation, the CDC’s Order applies to all public transportation conveyances including school buses. Passengers and drivers must wear a mask on school buses, including on buses operated by public and private school systems, regardless of vaccination status, subject to the exclusions and exemptions in CDC’s Order.
  • Physical Distancing and Cohorting: Within classrooms, students and staff should maintain 3 feet of physical distancing to the greatest extent practicable, combined with masking for all individuals per EO 251. Outside of classrooms, including in hallways, locker rooms, indoor and outdoor physical education settings, and school-sponsored transportation, students and staff should maintain physical distancing to the greatest extent practicable. The CDC recommends a distance of at least 6 feet between students and teachers/staff and between teachers/staff who are not fully vaccinated in all settings.
  • Cleaning, Disinfection and Airflow: The updated guidance recommends that schools wait as long as possible (at least several hours) before cleaning and disinfection.
  • Outbreaks: An outbreak in a school setting is defined as three or more laboratory-confirmed (by RT-PCR or antigen) COVID-19 cases among students or staff with onsets within a 14-day period, who are epidemiologically linked, do not share a household, and were not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting during standard case investigation or contact tracing.
  • Contact Tracing and Notification: In the K–12 indoor classroom setting, the close contact definition excludes students who were within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student (laboratory-confirmed or a clinically compatible illness) where both the infected student and the exposed student(s) correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time. This exception does not apply to teachers, staff, or other adults in the indoor classroom setting. Students within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student should still monitor for symptoms for 14 days after exposure.

COVID-19 Testing in NJ Schools

On August 30, 2021, the NJDOH issued updated guidelines for K-12 schools who implement screening testing for students and staff. According to the NJDOH, all K-12 schools should have a plan to provide or refer students and staff for diagnostic testing and are strongly encouraged to develop a screening testing strategy to identify asymptomatic infections to prevent further transmission in school. Below are several important updates:

  • Home-based COVID-19 tests: As a variety of home-based COVID-19 tests are becoming more widely available, the NJDOH is advising when they can be used for screening/testing purposes. Under the updated guidance, such tests may be used for screening testing of asymptomatic staff/students with no known exposure; may be used to shorten quarantine from 10 to 7 days after travel; should not be used to determine whether symptomatic individuals may return to school (unless performed with direct healthcare oversight or performed in a testing laboratory); should not be used to shorten quarantine from 10 to 7 days after exposure to a COVID-19 case unless performed with direct healthcare oversight or performed in a testing laboratory.
  • Screening Testing Strategies: The guidance emphasizes screening testing can be used to help evaluate and adjust prevention strategies and provide added protection for schools that are not able to provide optimal physical distance between students. In accordance with current CDC recommendations, persons who are fully vaccinated do not need to participate in routine screening testing programs unless it would be overly difficult for the school to implement a screening testing program based on vaccination status. In addition, persons who recently recovered from COVID-19 infection (positive viral test in past 3 months) should not be tested as part of routine screening testing programs, since test results may remain positive for up to 3 months, even though the individual is no longer infectious. The NJDOH further advises that screening testing more than once a week might be more effective at interrupting transmission but the feasibility of increased testing in schools should be considered. Schools may consider multiple screening testing strategies, for example, testing a random sample of at least 10% of students who are not fully vaccinated, or conducting pooled testing of cohorts. The guidance also includes a Screening Testing Matrix Based on COVID-19 Activity Level.

The NJDOH acknowledges that not all schools have the staff, financial resources, or training to implement COVID-19 testing. To assist those schools, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and CDC have established a grant program to assist schools with screening testing. School districts interested in participating in this program can obtain additional information by contacting their local health department.

Educating Students Required to Quarantine

On August 11, 2021, the New Jersey Department of Education (Department) issued guidance regarding educating students required to quarantine due to COVID-19. As the guidance notes, there will be situations where individual students, groups of students, or entire classes will meet the NJDOH COVID-19 exclusion criteria and must be excluded from school.

The guidance acknowledges that while remote instruction can be used to satisfy the 180-day requirement under N.J.S.A. 18A: 7F-9 in response to a district-wide, health-related disclosure, the law does not address when students or groups of students are excluded while in-person instruction continues for other students in the school or district. Similarly, while N.J.A.C. 6A:16-10 requires local education agencies (LEAs) to provide instructional services to an enrolled student when the student is confined to the home or another out-of-school setting due to a temporary or chronic health condition or a need for treatment that precludes participation in their usual education setting, the Department recognizes that such circumstances may not always apply to students excluded from school on the basis of NJDOH’s COVID-19 exclusion criteria.

Given the lack of clarity, the Department offers the following guidance:

[W]here an individual student, group of students, or entire class(es) are excluded from school due to meeting the NJDOH’s COVID-19 exclusion criteria, LEAs are strongly encouraged to immediately provide virtual or remote instruction to those students in a manner commensurate with in-person instruction. Over the last seventeen months, LEAs have employed immense creativity and innovation in delivering high-quality education to students in their homes. It is the Department’s expectation that LEAs will continue to employ such strategies to ensure that students are able to continue their educational progress even when excluded from school due to COVID-19.

The Department’s guidance also reminds LEAs that they must continue to account for the attendance of quarantined students in accordance with their local attendance policies.

If you have questions, please contact us

If you have legal concerns related to the new COVID-19 guidance and how it may impact your school district, we encourage you to contact me, Lawrence Teijido, or a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Education Law Group at 201-896-4100

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AboutLawrence M. Teijido

Lawrence M. Teijido is a member of the firm’s Public & Education law practice group, where he works with public clients on a broad range of civil litigation matters.Full Biography

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