October 14, 2020

COVID Cases Interrupt Back-to-School Plans

By Donald Gilpin

Phase-in plans for bringing students from remote learning back into the classrooms met with some obstacles last weekend, necessitating a delayed re-entry for a number of students, as three students at Princeton Day School reported positive COVID-19 tests and students at Princeton High School and Johnson Park were exposed to the virus.

A Johnson Park (JP) student and a Princeton High School (PHS) student, who live in a household where an individual has tested positive for COVID-19, will quarantine at home, and school officials are working with the Princeton Health Department in following up with contact tracing, quarantine measures, and disinfecting procedures as called for by state and local health departments.    

Students in the one potentially affected class at JP and their siblings will remain on remote learning for the entire week, allowing time for the classroom to be deep cleaned again and to ensure students are symptom-free.

The PHS phase-in to on-site learning is scheduled for next Monday October 19, but the PHS student exposed to COVID-19 is a soccer player, and the district has suspended soccer practices and games for a week, according to Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso, who said he anticipated that the boys on the team would be able to return to school with other PHS students on October 19.

Galasso expressed optimism that the planned phased-in hybrid reopening can remain on track. “Despite the rain today, we had a very positive experience as we brought back cohorts in grades two through five for the first time since March,” he wrote in an email to Princeton Public School (PPS) parents and staff on Monday. “I would like to thank the staff for their dedication and continued professionalism, and I would like to commend parents and students for their attentiveness to health protocols.”

He continued, “Mask-wearing is crucial. So far we have had a successful reopening and while our medical experts tell us nothing is certain our prospects for continued hybrid learning appear to be good.”

Princeton Day School (PDS) has also found the phasing-in process challenging this week with three students in grades nine-12 (Upper School) testing
positive over the weekend.  All Upper School classes have been shifted to remote rather than in-person and all athletics practices and games have been postponed or canceled at least through this Wednesday, October 14, when the situation will be reevaluated. 

The PDS Lower and Middle Schools continue as planned, according to PDS Headmaster Paul Stellato, with the three divisions operating separately with minimal contact.

The infected students, who were all asymptomatic, have been quarantined for 14 days, and extensive contact tracing is being implemented for those who were in close contact with the individuals, as PDS works closely with the Princeton Health Department in accordance with New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) guidelines.

Emphasizing the collaborative work of the department and the local schools, Princeton Health Department Press and Media Communications Director Fred Williams noted, “Each positive case triggers actions by the schools and health department that protect the remaining students and tend to the family of the students (or staff) who are infected.”

In an October 13 email he continued, “Cooperation between the schools and the parents has been good and the cooperation between the schools and the Princeton Health Department continues to be solid. In our joint effort to remain ahead of the curve in protecting our school students, staff, and teachers, we ask that Princeton residents help us to help the public by reporting their positive tests directly to the Princeton Health Department as soon as they are notified. This is especially helpful in cases involving students and others who interact regularly with others in a public setting.”

Princeton Health Officer Jeff Grosser commented on the increase in COVID cases in Princeton over the past month. “Unfortunately what we have noticed  with how quickly COVID spreads, a few new cases can quickly lead to many more,” he said. “With schools reopening and shifting from outdoor to indoor gatherings due to the colder temperatures, we are likely to see more cases. What we need to do to reduce disease transmission is what we have been encouraging residents to do since March; continue to physically distance from others, wear a mask, especially indoors, don’t leave your home if you are sick and continue to get adequate rest and exercise, and eat healthy. A strong immune system is key to fending off respiratory illnesses in the fall and winter.”

The Princeton Health Department reported on Monday eight active COVID-19 cases in Princeton, with seven new cases in the previous seven days, 19 new cases in the previous 14 days, and 206 individuals who have recovered with isolation complete. Princeton has reported a total of 244 confirmed cases with 30 deaths, 18 confirmed COVID-related and another 12 probably COVID-related.   

The Health Department reports that the burden of COVID-19 (prevalence of cases) is currently 214 percent higher in Mercer County than in the municipality of Princeton, with Mercer County’s mortality rate 74.75 percent higher than Princeton’s. Of the Princeton deaths, 87 percent were registered in long-term care facilities, and the long-term care facilities/nursing homes accounted for 25.9 percent of the total number of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in Princeton. The average age of people who died of COVID-19 in Princeton is 85.5 years.

Grosser pointed out that executive orders from N.J.  Gov. Phil Murphy in March and April restricting patient visitation, requiring face masks for all staff, and mandatory testing of staff and patients every three to seven days had brought about major turning points in the long-term care centers’ battle against COVID. 

“The past few months these facilities have done a great job implementing outbreak control mechanisms which have drastically cut down on new cases,” Grosser said. “Princeton began weekly meetings with both Princeton Care Center and Acorn Glen administration, head doctors, and nurse leadership on April 22. These calls are still occurring on a biweekly schedule. Through our calls we have identified equipment shortfalls, reviewed CDC and state guidance, and improved communication and lessons learned between facilities.”

In a comparison of the prevalence rate of COVID-19 per 10,000 people in selected Mercer County towns, Princeton ranks second lowest at 82.56, with West Windsor at 80.99, Hopewell Township at 108.65, Lawrence at 140.71, Hamilton at 205.96, East Windsor at 216.99, and Trenton at 370.50.