Last week in Toms River, 900 school staff and students were quarantined after the district was affected by 250 confirmed cases of Covid. The district started the year without a mask warrant until September 20, saying it was too hot.
Take this as a warning – this effort to keep kids in school could collapse, forcing a return to virtual learning.
Here’s a note from someone who took the opposite approach, safety first: Hoboken Superintendent Dr. Christine Johnson. Its strategy is already bearing fruit. She spoke to Julie O’Connor, member of the editorial board of Star-Ledger. Below is an edited transcript.
Governor Phil Murphy’s immunization mandate for school staff goes into effect Oct. 18. But Hoboken went much further, forcing this not only on school staff, but on all students aged 12 and over, from the first day of school. How’s it going ?
A. Really good. We have collected all of our teacher vaccination cards and calculated the vaccination rate last week among the staff, and we are at 95.4 percent. For students, we are roughly 55% vaccinated.
Q. How many do the regular testing instead?
A. The rest. About 400 children aged 12 and over take the tests. We also randomly test under 12s, who are too young to be vaccinated. That’s about 160 more students. The number of tests for the youngest correlates with the state’s positivity rate.
Q. Has anyone tested positive this year?
A. During the past two weeks, we have had a positive case, a kindergarten student who was not symptomatic. We had two more cases of pre-K covid detected by a parent, after going to the pediatrician this weekend. That’s it, for over 3000 students. And the two cases detected outside the school were not contacts of the case detected at the school.
Q. These numbers look good. So far, other districts have registered hundreds of positive cases.
A. We are obviously very happy about that. The data we collect is so important because it then gives me the ability to make decisions about whether we will continue with our testing program or change it.
Q. How does testing work for staff?
A. Staff members are tested on Fridays if they are not vaccinated, no matter what. We currently have 506 staff, and of these, around 23 are unvaccinated and are doing regular testing instead.
Q. Who pays for the tests? How much do they cost?
A. We are not using rapid antigen testing this year. We use 48 hour PCRs. We are working in partnership with Medicine Man, a local pharmacy. They take care of all the invoicing. When parents sign up, they indicate if they have insurance. If they do, the tests are passed through insurance. If they don’t or if they’re uncomfortable submitting their insurance, Medicine Man subjects the tests to federal care law. No parent receives a bill at any time and neither does the school district.
Q. Is this something any district could do now? Get free tests for staff and students?
Q. What do you say to those who think unvaccinated staff should pay for their own tests?
A. I don’t work that way. We made sure to include the teachers in the testing sites and the times our children go as well. We ask them to go before or after work or during their lunch hours. Everything is in place for them. They just go. They don’t have to make an appointment. For the record, I know that there are legitimate medical reasons for some people not to be vaccinated at this time.
Q. Why do you think other staff are not vaccinated?
A. School districts have the right to collect immunization data. We do not have the right to ask why someone is not vaccinated. It is protected by HIPAA. So if an individual is not vaccinated, you are not allowed to say, why not?
Q. You started collecting this information at the end of the summer and started your testing right away. What made you decide to go beyond Murphy’s tenure?
A. Well, I think because our schools were open last year, and we were able to see some positive case trends. We knew we had caught between 18 and 25 positives last year every time we tested. It’s given me enough information, insight, to say, let’s open up this school year and put some of these protocols in place and make sure we let everyone know that we’re going to be watching closely, and we’ll change when. we will need it.
Q. Unlike other districts, you conducted mass testing of students and many teachers last year after long weekends, holidays, and teacher conventions. What have you learned?
A. Last year, every student who attended school full time – which was, at the end of the year, just over 70% – was tested. For faculty last year it was optional, but we had a lot of staff who got tested. We set up a small period of estrangement after the holidays and tested during this period. If we hadn’t taken the test, these kids would have returned from Thanksgiving break at school, and who knows what 25 positive cases would have looked like the following week.
We also had a high percentage of teachers testing positive – we detected the positives and they had to quarantine before going back to school. I really feel like it toned down the transmission and kept us fundamentally open. Only once during our summer program did we have what is considered transmission, where one child had it and another child tested positive as a result.
Q. Did you have any problems with false positives or negatives?
A. Last year when we administered rapid tests we certainly had some that were positive and then the parent took the child for the 48 hour PCR and it was negative. This is another reason why we started with 48 hour PCR this year. We thought, let’s just start with the 48 hour benchmark test and go from there.
Q. The governor praised Hoboken for his success in keeping the schools open. What kind of reaction are you getting locally?
A. I did not really take a step back. I think part of it was that we introduced it last year at a time when it was emerging and critical. But I had questions. I had parents say, is it fair to test only the unvaccinated when you know that vaccinated people can transmit?
That’s a very good question. If we find that vaccinated people test positive, we will definitely consider including them in the testing program. And I have parents who aren’t as concerned with testing, more with wearing a mask. We had a very good, productive conversation. I think we need to be prepared to listen and not be afraid to have these difficult conversations.
Q. Have other districts expressed an interest in copying your approach?
A. I spoke to Highland Park. My advice was having a conversation with Montclair. It is more or less that. I am always available to help anyone who needs help.
Q. Having a testing system also keeps the school open in the winter, you say. Parents don’t panic as much when kids sniffle because protective measures are in place.
A. Not all runny noses are covids. And not all allergies. We will make sure to separate cases of covid from the common cold or the flu.
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