Back-to-school informational session in Union addresses COVID-19 concerns and more

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UNION, NJ — After more than a year of virtual schooling thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the return to school in Union for in-person learning was addressed with a back-to-school informational question-and-answer session via Facebook Live on Monday, Aug. 30. Discussing upcoming steps to keep children safe and answering questions that were emailed, phoned in or sent to the district was a panel consisting of Union Township Mayor Michele Delisfort, Union School District Superintendent Scott Taylor, Union Health Department Director Marconi Gapas, Union School District Director of Athletics, Nursing and Physical Education Linda Ionta, and Union Township Deputy Police Director Chris Donnelly.

Taylor said the school district’s strategy for tackling COVID-19 would consist of mask wearing per Gov. Phil Murphy’s directive, utilizing social distancing in schools, carefully monitoring infection rates, and communicating consistently via phone, email and the district website everything from protocol changes to case tracking.

When Taylor was asked what the process was if a child or a teacher tested positive for COVID-19, the superintendent said that a support structure was in place to communicate immediately with the individual or the family of the individual, depending whether it was an adult or a child.

“We will then investigate via contact tracing anyone who may have been in close contact,” said Taylor on Monday, Aug. 30. “At that point, we’ll contact those individuals and quarantine will be in effect for 10 days, regardless of vaccination status. Of course, there are some nuances we’ll consider. If, for instance, individuals were in close contact but were wearing masks consistently, that may exempt someone from having to quarantine. But that is the plan.”

When Delisfort asked about the school policy for unvaccinated staff and students younger than 12 years of age, who are not currently eligible for the vaccine, Taylor said the governor had mandated that all New Jersey school employees — at both public and independent schools — be vaccinated by Monday, Oct. 18. Those employees not vaccinated would have to be tested for coronavirus regularly.

“Ms. Ionta, who will be answering questions in a bit, is working with medical outlets to try to arrange on-site testing for those teachers and support staff who aren’t vaccinated,” said the superintendent. “Right now, we are surveying our staff who are willing to share their status, just to get a sense of the numbers we’re talking about, and it appears, of the respondents, we’ve got about a 32 percent response rate. That would mean 400 employees of roughly 1,200 have responded and, of that group, roughly 90 percent have indicated they are either partially vaccinated or fully vaccinated.

“I have a feeling that a majority of our employees will be fully vaccinated come Oct. 18, but, if they’re not, they have to be tested,” he added.

A Facebook Live viewer asked where children who play sports after school will be able to keep their equipment and change of clothes, so they can change before practice.

“As far as athletics, we have the capability right now to use the locker rooms when the athletes are outside. They don’t have masks on, but when they do come in the locker room, they have their masks on,” said Ionta on Monday, Aug. 30. “Our athletics teams were pretty successful last year, as far as not having to quarantine, and the kids followed the guidelines. As far as now, this year, there will be a lot more students back in the building. So, if a student becomes ill, we do have isolation rooms set up in each of the buildings, which will be separate.

“We also have to remember that kids get sick and it’s not always COVID,” she continued. “The nurse will be involved, and they’ll make the determination on whether a student needs to be isolated. Parents will be called, and we would expect that the parent would immediately pick up their child from school.”

Ionta stressed the importance of keeping a child home if they’re sick, adding that, while school nurses will not have rapid testing at hand, they will have plenty of personal protective equipment.

“If your child is not feeling well, you have to keep them home,” she said. “Sometimes, we have to go to work and we have other things to do, but to stop the spread of this, parents have to keep them home. Handwashing is also really important. Wear your mask when you can and follow the daily health advisories we get. If parents can just keep them home and let them get well, it would really help us out a lot.”

A parent asked whether children who were not feeling well at home would have the opportunity to participate in the classroom virtually.

“I believe we’re going to be able to do that,” Ionta said. “The governor said he didn’t want any of that, but when you have no other option, as far as you are truly sick, it’s not just a choice, because you are truly sick. We will exercise that option.”

Donnelly said the police department would be assigning officers to schools to keep students safe, including a special officer to Union High School, regular patrols and school crossing guards.

“To keep our students safe, we have three officers assigned to schools, a school resource officer in the high school who assists the school administration anyway they can,” Donnelly said on Monday, Aug. 30. “We also have a lead officer who works in the fifth grade, but also, if there’s any advice or any way they can help out throughout the day, they’re there for them. We just employed a special officer to Union High School, whose primary goal is to secure the entrance of the building. That’s to keep our students safe, our faculty safe and also authorize people in and out of the building.

“Along with that, we have our regular patrols,” he continued. “Officers are assigned posts. On their posts, they have several schools in their area … to patrol, to ensure safety during the day. We also have our parking enforcement. They go out there to ensure the arrival time and dismissal time that our children and our faculty are safe entering and exiting the schools. We try to give warnings for the most part, but, unfortunately, if that doesn’t work, we have to give summonses at times, but they’re out there to assist as well.

“We also have the school crossing guards that are a big part,” said the deputy police director. “We’re fully staffed, but we’re always looking for substitute crossing guards to help out. But if there is a school crossing that goes uncovered, we’ll assign a patrol officer to handle that.”