Progress Continues on the Rocky “Road Back”
By Donald Gilpin
Princeton, along with the rest of New Jersey, has moved cautiously into Phase 3 of “the road back,” with schools reopening this week or next, restaurants restarting indoor dining, and gyms, movies, and religious events permitted to welcome participants, with restrictions.
Princeton Public Schools (PPS) will start remotely on September 14, with students coming to the buildings for the first time for a phased-in hybrid program in October. Private schools are opening for remote, hybrid or in-person learning over the next two weeks.
Emphasizing the Princeton Health Department’s focus on many different fronts in this transitional period, Health Department Press and Media Communications Officer Fred Williams noted, “The biggest challenges here are keeping more people healthy as increased social activities come into play. Our Health Department is prepared to observe how these reopenings impact our current infection rates and is prepared to act based on what they encounter.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy delivered a favorable coronavirus report on Tuesday, September 8, describing the Labor Day weekend as “an incredibly good weekend in terms of compliance,” but adding, “You don’t see as much masking as you’d like.”
Although for the 11th consecutive day the transmission rate increased slightly, to 1.10, on Monday, (with any number over 1 indicating that each new case is leading to at least one additional case and the outbreak is spreading), Murphy expressed optimism that “the chances are relatively low” that recent reopenings will cause significant spikes in COVID-19 cases. In a week to ten days, he said, we would know more about possible effects of the reopenings.
In Princeton, Williams reported, “the Health Department has been busy working with our local restaurant owners in preparing their establishments for indoor dining. Guidelines have been disseminated and the process of inspecting and readying workplaces has also begun and is continuing. Business owners have been anticipating these reopenings for a few weeks now, which has resulted in the Health Department seeing tremendous cooperation in reopening these establishments within the parameters set forth in executive orders 181 and 183.”
New Jersey restaurants restarted outdoor dining on June 15, and executive order 183 permitted indoor dining to reopen with limitations starting last Friday, September 4. Under the executive order restaurants are limited to maximum capacity of 25 percent for indoor seating, with groups of customers limited to eight people, not including family members, all staff required to wear face coverings, all orders made through a server, and windows open to provide for proper airflow.
Williams pointed out that Princeton has been able to keep the curve flat and the numbers of active COVID-19 cases low. “Our most recent COVID cases remain low in number and not the result of any large community spread,” he wrote in a September 8 email. The most recent report from the Princeton Health Department on September 2 cited just three active cases, with three new cases in the previous seven days, six in the previous two weeks.
Reopening Challenges at PPS
The Health Department has been working with PPS, which reported three cases of COVID-19 last week at Princeton Unified Middle School (PUMS), formerly known as John Witherspoon Middle School, one a staff member of the school, one a construction worker, and another the member of an independent company involved in construction work at the school. It is not yet clear if the three cases are related.
There have been few staff members and no students in the building over the past couple of weeks. The middle school building will be closed to all PPS staff and the public through September 11 with plans to re-open on September 14.
PPS Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso noted that he did not anticipate any changes to the schedule at the middle school, with all PPS staff continuing professional development training remotely in preparation for the district schools’ opening virtually on September 14, with hybrid learning, involving students and teachers in the schools, scheduled to begin on October 12.
The infected individuals are being monitored and quarantined for at least 14 days, and the Princeton Health Department has been in touch with PPS staff and others who may have had close contact with these three individuals.
The September 8 PPS Board of Education virtual meeting, which took place after press time, was expected to be well attended with several controversial issues likely to arise. Among those issues were teachers’ health concerns about in-person instruction and the denial of teachers’ requests for accommodations; administration concerns about adequate staffing for October in-person instruction; the question of how the athletics program should proceed, with a September 14 New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association deadline for schools to decide whether they will participate in interscholastic competition this fall; and questions about delayed maintenance, installation of new HVAC equipment, and the condition of school buildings in preparation for opening.
On Tuesday afternoon Galasso expressed confidence that maintenance issues would be resolved by October 1, and was optimistic that some students and teachers could be brought back into the building before the announced October 12 in-person opening date, depending on staffing, the local COVID-19 transmission rate, and final maintenance issues. He said that he would be making a recommendation last night concerning the athletic program.
Asymptomatic Testing at PU
Princeton University completed its first week of asymptomatic testing on Friday, August 28, with initial results that support public health measures. Only four employees, no students, tested positive, for a positivity rate of 0.09 percent out of 4,477 tests administered to students and employees approved to be on campus for the fall semester, according to Princeton University’s Office of Communications.
Princeton’s comprehensive asymptomatic COVID-19 protocol, which is part of the University’s public health plan to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, is required for members of the University community who are on campus for at least eight hours per week.
All four employees who tested positive were immediately contacted by the University’s Global and Community Health team, who oversee the testing protocol. They remain in isolation and will continue to be paid during their isolation period.
The testing is taking place outdoors at the Princeton University Stadium concourse for the first few weeks in a clinic set up with appropriate social distancing and public health protocols, including barriers placed between every testing station. University Health Services is administering saliva tests, which require spitting into a tube. Results will be published weekly at fall2020.princeton.edu.
“It is reassuring to see such a low positivity rate as we start the semester,” said physician and University Health Services (UHS) infectious disease specialist Irini Daskalaki. “It is encouraging that adherence to public health measures has kept the rates low in our area and our campus so far.”
Melissa Marks, UHS director of medical services, added, “The four positive cases found were not in close contact with one another and so this very small positivity rate does not reflect a cluster – an important public health consideration.”