Parents are up in arms about quarantine rules in South Orange–Maplewood School District

BOE First Vice President Shannon Cuttle reads submitted comments during the meeting.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Parents in the South Orange–Maplewood School District asked the Board of Education at its meeting on Monday, Sept. 20, to decrease the 14-day quarantine requirement for students who have been exposed to COVID-19, asking the district to prioritize in-person learning by whatever means necessary. Before the meeting, the district handbook required a two-week quarantine for unvaccinated students who had come into contact with the virus, with no option to test negative and return to class; the handbook was updated after the meeting to specify quarantine periods based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state Department of Health guidelines.

“The current CDC and NJDOH continue to endorse 14 days as the preferred quarantine period — and thus the preferred school exclusion period, regardless of regional transmission level,” the handbook says. “Excluded individuals who are identified as close contacts of staff or students who tested positive for COVID-19 may be considered for a reduced exclusion period, based on community transmission levels.”

Essex County’s current transmission rate is moderate.

The quarantine period can be reduced from 14 days if a negative test is produced. Students in preschool through fifth grade will have to quarantine for seven days if the negative test is taken on day three, four or five. Parents must submit a laboratory test to the school principal and the nurse as soon as it is taken. If parents choose not to test their child for COVID-19, a 10-day quarantine will be required.

The guidelines are the same for middle school and high school students, except that students who are vaccinated will not have to quarantine. It is required that proof of vaccination be shared with the school, so that district officials can identify who would not have to quarantine.

Parents who submitted comments to the BOE at the meeting said the quarantine periods were disruptive.

“There is no reason or evidence for a 14-day quarantine for the kids, and it will be extremely disruptive for them in a school year where they are already anxious,” Erica Barton, who has a child in 10th grade and another in eighth, said in her submitted comment. “The kids barely had any in-person last school year, and now, with this policy, this school year has the potential to follow down the same path.”

Maya Zoboro said students should be in school in person as much as possible.

“We can’t afford to lose any more days,” she wrote to the BOE. “Why not consider a test-to-stay model? In-school transmission has proved to be uncommon, and rapid tests daily have been shown to be as effective as quarantines.”

A mother whose daughter at South Orange Middle School has been affected by the quarantine said that the measure is necessary but should not last two full weeks.

“There is no reason for a 14-day quarantine without a testing option,” Heather Hartzell wrote to the board. “I would urge you to reconsider the district’s definition of close contact, which I

believe to be unduly restrictive. If we continue to ignore the fact that our students are masked at all times in school and force quarantining despite that fact, there are going to be repeated instances where entire classes are forced to quarantine. We know this is incredibly disruptive to students and teachers, especially after the already difficult 18 months we’ve had since COVID started.”

BOE First Vice President Shannon Cuttle read submitted comments at the meeting for more than an hour; almost all of them were about the quarantine guidelines. Maplewood parent Amanda Cercone said students with social anxiety would not benefit from being away from classmates for 14 full days.

“The district decision to go above and beyond the recommended CDC guidelines is detrimental to the progress that children have made over the years,” Cercone said. “My child is struggling socially and emotionally because of last year’s quarantine. Now that my child is back in school, there is a struggle and fear to connect with peers, due to the strict social distancing rules put in place. If our children are allowed to play sports and on the town’s playground without masks, why is simply keeping our children masked in school and frequent handwashing not enough?”

After the comments were read, Superintendent Ronald Taylor said the district was relying on local health officials to determine the best practices for keeping COVID-19 from spreading.

“If the score shifts to high transmission, we no longer have the option to make our quarantines test out for three, four, five days later,” he said. “That’s why we made the parent guidebook a live document. We’re in fluid times, so as things shift, we shift. As things happen, we may have to change the guidance. We often update it based on what’s happening with COVID in our district.”