COVID ‘Fatigue’ Behind Rising Cases in West Orange, May Delay School’s Hybrid Opening

Rising cases have caused some public school districts, like Bloomfield and Newark, to postpone any in-person learning until January 2021.

Now, the West Orange Public Schools Superintendent is voicing concern about a planned start for its hybrid cohort model on November 9.

In a letter to parents, Superintendent Dr. Scott Cascone said that the number of confirmed cases in West Orange Township has increased steadily and that a special public BOE meeting will be held Wednesday to determine whether schools can open safely (full text of the letter below).

West Orange Schools also sent to alerts to families Tuesday about new cases at Gregory Elementary and Roosevelt Middle School.

Dear West Orange Families, Students, and Staff,

I hope this finds you all well and finding some measure of normalcy in the comfort of the company of loved ones.

Over the course of the last two months, the district administration has placed a significant amount of time, effort, and resources to prepare to begin our hybrid cohort model on November 9.

As you are all aware through my previous communications, over the course of the last several weeks, quarantines due to positive COVID-19 cases have necessitated the closing of Washington Elementary School, the Transportation Department, and more recently, the quarantining of a number of staff members at Redwood, Kelly, and St. Cloud Elementary Schools.

Contemporaneously, the number of confirmed cases in West Orange Township has increased steadily. The township has experienced a 13% (+180 cases) increase in cases since October 1, 8.54% (+123) increase from October 16, a 3.77% (+57 cases) increase over the course of last week, and an additional 15 cases over the weekend.

It was, perhaps, these most recent circumstances which led the West Orange Office of Emergency Management to reach out to me and other town officials expressing reservation as to the advisability of commencing our hybrid cohort model amidst this spike in numbers of confirmed cases.

Upon receipt of this correspondence, I scheduled a meeting on Friday afternoon with the West Orange Office of Emergency Management, Department of Health, Mayor, our school district physician, Dr. Michael Kelly, and Board of Education President, Mr. Ken Alper. I had two objectives for this meeting: First, I wanted to gain a better understanding from the health and medical workers on the front lines of the current status of the public health situation; and second, I wanted to ask them directly, and from their various perspectives, as to whether they concurred with the position of the Office of Emergency Management.

The following were a number of key takeaways which I gleaned from the meeting relative to the current situation in West Orange.

In the last 2 weeks, confirmed cases have increased exponentially by nearly 9% and 13% in 4 weeks.

A higher rate of symptomatic illness is being observed now than in August and September.

The virus is being transmitted definitively through aerosolized particles and not simply through droplets and is spreading more quickly and readily.

A higher, overall percentage of the confirmed cases and illnesses are school-age children with 30 of the more recent cases being school-age children.
Cases are being confirmed in various locations but most notably in indoor spaces such as offices.

An apparent second wave has had a significant impact on personnel, impacting human resources not only in the West Orange Township but in our public schools as well. Dr. Kelly reports that one school district for which he serves as district physician has 100 teachers presently quarantined.

More recent cases have now been leading to hospitalizations with two ICU admissions; this severity and illness had not been seen later in August and early September.

Cases are clustering in homes with infections being passed between parents and children. This was noted by the West Orange Health Department as a significant concern as it relates to infections being transferred to schools.

Meeting participants referred, on a number of occasions, to “COVID Fatigue”, meaning the loosening of people’s own precautions and care not only relative to their own behavior but that which they are allowing their children to do, whether it be physical activities like sports, birthday parties, sleepovers and the like. This further increases the chances that students will bring the virus into schools.

All medical and public health authorities who attended the meeting held the same position: In the face of these exponentially rising cases, commencing the hybrid cohort model would not be advisable since this would involve bringing in large numbers of students and staff at one time. Subsequent to that meeting, I received a formal written recommendation to delay the opening of schools from the district physician Dr. Michael Kelly, also referencing the corroborative perspectives of the local Department of Health and Office of Emergency Management.

As we are now in receipt of this information, the administration will be continuing to confer with these authorities and monitor the trend of cases in the next 48 hours. At the Special Public Meeting of the Board of Education on November 4, public health and medical authorities will be invited to the meeting to engage in a public discussion with the Board about this. This will provide our public an opportunity to hear the very same commentary and recommendations which I have been provided.

The ultimate decision lies in my hands as superintendent, and I will render a final decision as to whether we will move forward on November 9 with the hybrid cohort model by 8 AM on Thursday, November 5.

I thank you in advance for your time and attention and I invite you to attend this critical public discussion on Wednesday, November 4.

Sincerely,

J. Scott Cascone, Ed. D. Superintendent of Schools

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