Murphy: New school COVID reporting dashboard balances transparency, privacy to help combat outbreaks

Positive COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in New Jersey, with numbers steadily increasing in many counties across the state. As the numbers creep upwards, many residents are noticing a correlation between this increase and the reopening of schools.

Gov. Phil Murphy attempted to put these concerns to rest at his Wednesday media briefing, as he expressed renewed confidence in the efforts being made by school districts.

“We knew, as we’ve been saying going in, that there would be positive cases in our schools,” Murphy said. “We have in place the protocols and guidance to ensure that, when identified, a case is removed as quickly and carefully as possible from the building environment.”

The governor also announced a new portal launched by the Department of Health on Wednesday that will be used to keep track of instances of in-school transmission in each county and the numbers of cases identified with these instances. In total, there are 11 confirmed outbreaks traced to schools. Seven counties have had incidents, with Cape May currently having the most, at three outbreaks. In total, 43 cases have been linked to confirmed outbreaks from schools.

While concerning, Murphy likes these numbers and continues to remain cautiously optimistic.

“The last thing we want to do is pat ourselves on the back and wake up the next day and find that number went up by multiples,” he said. “What I will say is, relative to what I predicted a month ago … (the current number of school outbreaks) is a pretty darn good result.”

Out of the 802 completed reopening plans submitted to the Department of Education, 403 are currently using hybrid education and 81 are still using all in-person instruction, while 278 have gone fully remote.

Since reopening began across the state in early September, at least 20 schools across the state have reported positive COVID test results and had to switch to all-remote learning for at least one day. Most of these schools have either already gone back to some sort of hybrid instruction model or plan to do so in the coming weeks.

The Department of Health has previously released detailed guidelines for schools on how to handle a positive COVID case, when to implement a quarantine and when to switch to remote learning. The main recommendation stated is to shut down the school if two or more people in multiple classrooms get sick within 14 days and a clear connection between the cases can be identified.

With Monday’s announcement that 2.6 million BinaxNOW rapid tests are on the way from Abbott Labs, Murphy believes that these tests will help fight COVID-19 in school districts.

“Having that ability for the school nurse to give that test and get the answer in 15 minutes with 98%-plus accuracy will be a huge weapon to deploy with our schools,” he said. “We don’t have that yet; the Binax supplies are coming in the next 10 days to two weeks. But that will be a game-changer.”

Department of Education interim Commissioner Kevin Dehmer was also present at the briefing and highlighted last week’s announcement of grant allocations totaling $100 million to every school district and charter school from the COVID relief fund. In addition, schools have received $279 million in CARES Act funding to help bolster their efforts.

The commissioner also noted that, compared to other states, he believes New Jersey is above the mark.

“When the school year began, we all saw images from schools in other states, where students returned to crowded hallways or congregated without masks,” Dehmer said. “Here in New Jersey, staff and students are following social distancing rules, they’re wearing masks, they’re working closely with their local health officials, and they’re making safety the No. 1 priority.”

With the percent positivity in New Jersey reaching a two-month high of 3% on Sept. 26, it is clear that the state is not out of the water yet. However, when it comes to schools, at least, Murphy is confident that the districts are doing everything they can to stop outbreaks.

“Our overarching aim remains ensuring that our schools do not themselves become the epicenters of new outbreaks,” he explained. “In every case, we will continue to work closely with our districts and communities to ensure a safe process.”