From offering at-home test kits to providing mobile labs to schools for students who need to be tested, South Jersey superintendents say they’ve taken steps to ensure their personnel and students are safe, and the schools are addressing Gov. Phil Murphy’s vaccination mandate, which took effect Monday.
Schools that responded to a query by The Press of Atlantic City reported losing employees over Murphy’s vaccination mandate. Of the eight districts that responded, all reported vaccination rates of of 79% or higher, surpassing the 76% of the state’s eligible population that has been fully vaccinated in New Jersey, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, the vaccination rate is 57.3%.
In August, Murphy set the deadline requiring all preschool to 12th grade school personnel to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or be subject to weekly testing. The executive order includes all individuals who work at a school, including part-time workers such as bus drivers, school food service workers and custodial workers. It mandated all workers receive at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 18, or else be subject to weekly testing at a minimum of one to two times per week. There is no vaccine mandate for students in K-12 schools.
The Press invited South Jersey districts to share their vaccination response in light of Murphy’s order earlier this week. Eight districts responded as of Friday: Millville, Barnegat Township, Galloway Township, Buena Regional, Egg Harbor City, Avalon-Stone Harbor, Ocean City and Somers Point. The districts were asked about vaccination rates, testing, other steps and whether employees had quit rather than submit to the mandate.
Their answers highlighted efforts to comply with the order and COVID-related safety protocols, while still providing a positive experience for students.
“Our district continues to seek balance between and among physical health and safety, mental health and social, emotional well-being and academic learning and progress,” wrote Galloway Township Superintendent Annette C. Giaquinto.
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Giaquinto reported 82% of school staff had been vaccinated and that a provider had been identified for on-site testing of employees who had not been vaccinated.
In Millville, where 85% of school staff had been vaccinated so far, Superintendent Tony Trongone said the school began testing personnel two weeks before the Monday deadline. The tests are available onsite with a private company at no cost to the district, and self-test kits are available for staff as well, he said.
Testing also was available for students, Trongone said, adding “to be clear — Millville Public School (district) is not requiring students to be tested, but is providing access to testing for family convenience.”
In Somers Point, where 79% of staff reported being fully vaccinated, efforts to expand testing were also underway, said Superintendent Michelle CarneyRay-Yoder.
g to have an option for families to have their children tested in a couple weeks, once we get the program up and running for our staff,” CarneyRay-Yoder said.
Among the districts that responded, Egg Harbor City and Avalon-Stone Harbor reported the highest vaccination rates by the deadline, at 92% and 90%, respectively.
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Kathleen Fox, superintendent for Avalon-Stone Harbor, said the district will use at-home test kits for employees without vaccines, while Egg Harbor City Superintendent Adrienne Shulby said the district will have one testing site for all employees.
Other schools reporting vaccination rates were Barnegat (79.5%) and Buena Regional (80%).
In some cases where schools shared COVID cases, the data reflected the national picture, with so-called “breakthrough” cases of the virus in vaccinated individuals far less common.
That was the case in Ocean City, where Superintendent Thomas Baruffi reported that among the 61 COVID-19 cases in the district since Aug. 28, 82%, or 50 cases, were among those without vaccines. Among students, the rates were even more pronounced, with 91% of an unspecified number of cases being reported in those who had not received the vaccine.