The West Milford Board of Education held its monthly meeting in the Macopin Middle School Cafeteria on Sept. 28th. Managing rising COVID-19 cases in the schools was an important issue that was discussed.
Positive cases of the COVID-19 viruses have been on the rise in West Milford since the end of the summer - and the return of in-person education for all kids in NJ schools.
West Milford Superintendent of Schools Dr. Alex Anemone provided a brief “end of September COVID update” in his Superintendent’s Report at the beginning of the school board meeting.
Highest number of cases at the High School
Anemone stated that as of September 13th, there were 54 positive cases of Covid-19 at West Milford High School, and a handful of other cases among the district’s other school buildings.
Of those 54 cases, Anemone said that 29 had already returned to school after completing the required quarantine period and/or testing, and 25 still remained out of school in quarantine (later exposures).
In addition to the 25 that were still out for quarantine, Anemone said there were 21 other students that were also out of school for quarantining, since they were identified as having “close contact” with the positive cases.
Anemone said at the meeting, “So right now, there are 46 students that are out of school due to positive COVID tests or COVID close contacts among unvaccinated students.
“We do contact tracing for every case too,” he added, “and are in constant contact with the County Health Department and the State Health Department.”
He stated that through the contact tracing methods completed for each positive or potential exposure case thus far, the data shows primarily out of school sources of transmission. Anemone said, “We have very little in-school transmission.”
Anemone said that the contact tracing results for the number of positive cases at the High School thus far, have led back to “out-of-school events”, including: a large gathering of students, alumni, and parent/ adult spectators at the first High School Home Varsity Football Game of the year (held on September 10th); and another out-of-school private event that same weekend, at which many students had gathered together.
Additional preventative methods
Despite the low number of positive COVID cases possibly spread through in-school transmission, the administrators at West Milford High School worked together with custodial staff to re-implement additional precautions and prevention methods at the school.
For example, Anemone commented that the cafeteria is the only place in the school where students are not wearing masks - while they are eating and drinking. As a result, desks are again now being used in the cafeteria, and all desks and tables have been spread apart to maintain 6 feet social-distance space between students while they eat.
During the “Old Business” portion of the public school board meeting, BOE Trustee Ray Guarino stated that several myths and false rumors about Covid information in schools have been circulating among the community via social media platforms, as well as by word-of-mouth. He requested that Anemone help the School Board to clarify the factual information for the public.
For example, Guarino questioned how the high school could remain open with 54 positive cases, when the state has recommended that three cases transmitted through
in-school contact may warrant consideration of a “two-week pause” on in person education.
Anemone explained: “We do meet with County and State Health departments - they want to see that we’re doing what we are with contact tracing (methods). They said we’re doing everything right- like adjusting tables and desks in the cafeteria.”
Anemone said that contact tracing, which was done in coordination and cooperation with the County and State Health Departments and reviewed closely - particularly due to the high number of cases - showed that the majority of the cases were transmitted through events outside of school.
He said through research, they were also finding that the number of vaccinated individuals among age-eligible students ages 12+ were lower than they expected.
“We are in the process of collecting vaccination data from our staff now - that’s due before October 18th. We’re about halfway there: about half of our staff has submitted (vaccination records/ status) and about half has not. Of the half that have submitted, I believe about 95% are fully vaccinated, vs. half; so we don’t think we’ll really have any kind of major outbreak in that area.
“No vaccine is 100% safe,” he added, “but we also know that it does offer a lot of protection that those that are not being vaccinated don’t have.”
‘We have been aggressively going after this’
Director of Special Services (which also encompasses Nursing & school health) Elizabeth McQuaid said: “The other thing I think is important for the public to know is that when you have cases as high as ours right now, with the 54 cases coming from the high school, right - as that information is coming in to us, we are then immediately excluding - and that’s the term that they use - ‘excluding’ those students from school. And anyone that those students drove with, sat at the lunch table with, those; that whole group, is then immediately excluded.”
She continued: “So I think the main thing... for the public to know is that we have been aggressively going after this and making sure that it is as controlled as it can be. Are some students going to still feel the residual effects of like a contact with a contact and it keeps going? Yeah. But we are starting to fully see the number coming down, and we hope that that will continue.
“If we ever feel we need to close for or due to a safety purpose we would of course consider that with the Health Department,” McQuaid added, “but at this point they are satisfied with the strategy that we have in place.”
‘That’s important for people to know’
Guarino said: “So again, dispelling - one of those rumors out there was that the Health Department recommended that we pause for two weeks. But you clearly are saying that is not the case. That’s important for people to know. Thank you.”
Anemone replied: “We do our best to deliver the facts out to parents in a very straightforward manner with the daily letter, that goes out at about 5 o’clock at night or 5:30, thereabouts.”
BOE President Lynda VanDyk commented: “That’s why I want to make it clear - we were never told by the Health Department to close.”
She noted that was one of the false rumors being spread throughout the community. She said, “We did not go against the Board of Health protocols.”