Union Township closes three schools amid COVID-19 omicron spike

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UNION, NJ — The spike in COVID-19 positive cases due to the omicron variant has affected numerous school districts throughout New Jersey, including Union. Superintendent of Union Township Schools Scott Taylor recently closed three of the district’s 10 schools — Union High School, Franklin Elementary School and Burnet Middle School — as a precautionary tactic, to limit the spread of the omicron variant, which is spreading at a faster rate than the delta variant did.

“The department of health in Union and the district meet daily to talk about the number of COVID cases. We also meet to talk about the percentage of students who are quarantined because they either have COVID or are exposed or traveled, and we decide whether we should switch to half days or whether the schools have to close completely,” Taylor said on Wednesday, Dec. 22. “The department of health and the district came up with a standard. So we don’t just make the decisions randomly; we use these metrics.

“Keep in mind, schools cannot go all virtual unless the health department directs them to do so,” he continued. “The governor has a mandate that says schools cannot provide virtual instruction unless directed to do so. Last Friday (Dec. 17), I announced that the high school would be closed and going all virtual, starting this past Monday (Dec. 20), kicking in Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. This past Monday (Dec. 20), I announced that Franklin Elementary School had to go all virtual beginning Tuesday (Dec. 21), which was yesterday. Yesterday, I made the announcement that Burnet Middle School had to go all virtual beginning today, Wednesday (Dec. 22). So it’s been an announcement, one after the other.”

Taylor acknowledged that the school closings could put parents in a tight spot regarding a sudden shift in child care needs for younger children.

“There has been a spike in numbers, but the bottom line is that the percentage of students who are quarantined for either being COVID positive or exposed to the virus or who traveled was high enough that the department of health felt we needed to close the schools and go all virtual,” Taylor said. “The schools were closed because there was concern that the virus was spreading and could continue to spread if we didn’t do something. So, you can say this was done as a precaution and a way to prevent even more people from being exposed to the virus.

“I was very apologetic in my phone messages to the parents and guardians who are impacted, because I recognized that I would have to make this phone call based on the decision the health department made so quickly,” he continued. “Here I was, telling people one day their kids can be in school and then, another day, they couldn’t be in school. So, I’m sure it puts parents and guardians in a tough spot, but, at the end of the day, I have to keep health and safety at the top of my list of priorities. As unfortunate as it was for parents and guardians, in the end, it’s what’s best for the kids’ health and safety, and adults, too, because we’ve got a lot of people in the schools.”

According to Taylor, from the time Union High School, Burnet Middle School and Franklin Elementary School closed, each began utilizing remote learning and will continue to do so until the time the schools reopen after the break. The three schools are set to return to in-person learning on Monday, Jan. 3. Taylor said he is hoping this will achieve a limit on the spread.

“Every day, the kids will get instruction virtually, just like they did at the height of the pandemic last year, and it’s the same model that we used last year,” Taylor said. Regarding closings, he continued, “I have to speak on the health department’s behalf, because we work closely together and we’re hoping that we’ll come back Jan. 3 with much lower positive case rates and that we’ll be able to keep the transmission of the virus in check for the rest of the year. We anticipate there’ll be some holiday gatherings and that could spread the virus, so we can’t control that necessarily, but at least by shutting those three schools down this past week, we will … have prevented some measure of transmission, regardless of what happens over the holidays.”

At the Union Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 21, board member Kim Ruiz gave her personal opinion about what parents are going through regarding sudden school closings, after Taylor’s COVID-19 presentation.

“I’m disappointed to hear that we cannot close for at least a few weeks after we come back on Jan. 3, because I think we should all operate under the assumption that there will be people traveling and there will be people gathering,” Ruiz said during the board meeting. “We can’t stop people from doing whatever it is they want to do, despite the uptick of the numbers.

“I think it’s really inconvenient for families, when we bring down the hammer, saying, ‘Your students are virtual.’ It’s very inconvenient to do that to working families last minute,” she continued. “It’s unfortunate, because it would’ve been great to be able to tell parents, ‘We’ll be virtual from Jan. 3 through Jan. 18’ (for example), before we went out on break. That gives families time to plan and prepare, because the greatest frustration I’m hearing from a lot of parents is, ‘I just got the letter and my kids are virtual for the next two weeks, or they have a half day and I have no child care. I have to work and I can’t miss work.’ A lot of people are back in the office, so it makes it a little more difficult. So that’s disappointing.”