Ocean City School District publicizing COVID-19 cases

By DAVID NAHAN/Sentinel staff

OCEAN CITY  – Superintendent Taylor: We want parents to understand this is serious

From the start of the school year through Oct. 30, there have been nine cases of COVID-19 in the Ocean City School District and 100 students and/or faculty quarantined as a result, but none of the cases has come from spreading within the schools.

There have been five cases at the high school and four cases at the intermediate school, but no cases at the primary school. Seventy-one students and/or staff have been quarantined at the high school, 20 at the intermediate school and nine at the primary school.

School officials, interviewed Monday, said the cases are cumulative and don’t indicate a single-week or single-day picture of what is happening in the district.

According to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kathleen Taylor and Wellness Program director Jill Berenato, the district is not announcing daily statistics to avoid potentially identifying a student or staff member who has tested positive for the coronavirus. However, they started publishing the cumulative totals about two weeks ago to keep the public informed about what is happening in the district.

“We don’t identify who has it but we did want to put numbers out because it is impacting the schools and we want parents to understand, this is serious,” Taylor said. “There isn’t a school that’s immune to this that I know of. I know we’re not.”

From the start of the school year, the district has taken steps to make in-person learning in the district as safe as possible, after all of the state’s schools were required to move to remote learning in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic worsened in New Jersey.

The major steps have included regular sanitizing and hand-washing, social distancing and requiring everyone in the district to wear masks, along with a hybrid schedule with the student body broken into two cohorts, one that attends in person Mondays and Tuesdays and distance learns Wednesdays through Fridays and the other that attends in person Thursdays and Fridays and distance learns Mondays through Wednesdays. There also is a Virtual Learning Academy for students (and parents) who prefer all-remote learning.

Taylor said all of the students and staff have been compliant with the protocols and that is what has kept the students and staff members from spreading the virus in the schools.

The cases of COVID-19 have come from someone getting the virus outside of the school, such as a parent passing it unknowingly to his or her child or a staff member getting infected by a family member.

“It hasn’t been coming from within the school,” Taylor said. “All the positive cases have been coming from somebody outside the school that our staff or student gets sick from.”

Deciding quarantine

Asked how the district has decided whom to quarantine, Berenato and Taylor said that is a collaborative effort between the district and the Cape May County Department of Health, but that the health department has the final say.

Berenato explained that the school is not mandated to contact trace, but it has its own investigative procedure to determine who in the district is an actual close contact of a person infected – were they within 6 feet of that person, unmasked, and had contact for a total of at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period?

“We contact the health department and given them all the information and they would say this person should be on quarantine,” Berenato said. “We get all the return-to-school dates and all the quarantine dates from the health department.” 

The health department does the contact tracing, but because the school does its own investigation, and because there can be a delay between when they inform the health department, which is inundated with the growing number of cases, and when the department informs parents, the district can provide parents with an early heads-up. “We always, always, always say to the parents they should confer with their primary care physician as well,” Berenato said.

Taylor noted that early warning can help because some students and faculty don’t live in Cape May County and may be notified by other county health departments.

Parents can reach out with concerns

Berenato said parents and students can contact the district if they have worries or concerns.

There is a Virtual Wellness Room in the district and there are Wellness Power School classrooms for each school.

“What that does is when a student is home, virtually, through Virtual Academy or out on quarantine, we the mental health counselors can contact the student or the parent directly,” Berenato said. “It’s a way for us to stay in touch with them. Anytime a student goes out on quarantine, or even on an extended period of sickness, we always initiate a phone call first and talk with the parent. 

“As far as mental health and medical concerns, parents reach out to us and we welcome that,” she added. “We don’t know what we can help with unless we’re told. It’s case by case. We have parents reach out to us and we have students, and friends of students who might say, ‘Hey, I have a friend on quarantine and she’s really having a hard time. Can you reach out to her?’ We try to reach out from every angle possible. The nurse’s office would reach out to a parent or staff member, the guidance counselor would, the mental health counselor would, just to kind of hone in what exactly the biggest problem is right now that we can fix.

“Health and safety is number one priority,” Berenato said. “We want to make sure they’re feeling good mentally and physically not just in school, but at home as well.”

Gamut of emotions

Taylor and Berenato said students are glad to be back in school and some would like it to be full-time rather than the hybrid schedule, but they are doing what is in the best interest of safety.

“In the beginning of the school year we had a number of teachers in each of the schools say the students are so motivated to be here,” Taylor said. “They want to be in school. We all want to be in school. Some of the parents would like to have their children attend five days a week.

We all would like to have that. It’s just not happening right now. We’re making the adjustments. We’ve been teaching with having students in front of us every day. We’re managing in person as well as remote instruction. It’s a challenge.

“It’s been positive that, thank God, we’re back to school,” Taylor said. “And then you have your frustrations. We’re running the gamut of emotions, I would say.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Berenato added. “I think that two months in and we’re still open and we’re doing well academically, school wise, I think that says a lot. We’re getting a lot of support from parents. Naturally you run into some negative feedback sometimes, but for the most part things seem to be running very smoothly. I think that routine brings comfort …” even if in-person learning is only two days a week.

Hoping to keep in-person learning

There are benchmarks the district could hit with a certain number of students or staff infected with the coronavirus that would force it to go all-remote for 14 days, as an Upper Township school was forced to do earlier in the year.

“Thankfully we have not reached that,” Taylor said. “Hopefully we don’t. Yeah, we are worried.”

The superintendent noted that whenever they see a positive case, they hope it isn’t linked to cases that would trigger all-remote learning or that the Department of Health is going to call to discuss closing schools.

“We have not had that happen. We’re hoping it doesn’t,” Taylor said, knocking on the wood on her desk.

“Everyone in the school system is taking the measures we have in place very seriously,” Taylor said. “They’re adhering to them. They know if we’re not careful, we could have more cases and no one wants that. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is adhering to the procedures we have in place, the protocols we have in place. We have not had an issue with anyone.”

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