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January 13, 2022

New Jersey schools can shorten COVID-19 quarantine period to 5 days under new guidelines

The state health department is also encouraging districts to limit extracurricular activities to fully-vaccinated students and staff amid the recent surge in coronavirus infections

Education COVID-19
New Jersey schools COVID-19 Gustavo Martinez Contreras/Asbury Park Press

New Jersey students may return to school in as little as five days after testing positive for COVID-19, according to new guidelines. Above, New Jersey students participate in in-person learning during the pandemic.

Despite the recent spike in coronavirus infections caused by the omicron variant, New Jersey school districts will be allowed to cut back on the amount of time a student or teacher should isolate after testing positive for or being exposed to COVID-19.

The New Jersey Department of Health issued new guidance Wednesday that permits K-12 schools to shorten quarantine periods for students and staff to as little as five days after testing positive or coming into close contact with a COVID-positive classmate or co-worker.

Students and teachers who test positive for COVID-19 should self-isolate for at least five days. Those who are asymptomatic or for whom symptoms have improved can exit quarantine after five days. But masks should be worn as much as possible, including outdoors, over the following five days.

Asymptomatic close contacts who do not test positive for COVID-19 should also quarantine for at least five days. After five days, these students and teachers should get tested for the virus. Those who develop COVID-19 symptoms or test positive should remain isolated, while those who remain asymptomatic and test negative can return to school.

Previous statewide guidance advised students to quarantine at home for at least seven days if contact tracing showed they were exposed to a COVID-positive person in schools. That isolation period extended up to 10 days if they didn't get tested.

The state health department is also encouraging school districts in areas experiencing very high levels of COVID-19 transmission to limit participation in extracurricular activities to students and teachers who are fully vaccinated. Schools that fall into this category should also test students and staff for COVID-19 twice a week in order to participate in such activities. 

The entire state is currently experiencing very high levels of COVID-19 transmission, according to the state health department. Each region has a COVID-19 percent positivity rate of more than 20% and an infection rate of more than 25 per 100,000 people.

The amended guidance is not mandatory to follow, as school districts have been permitted to craft much of their own COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.

The updated recommendations echo revised guidance on quarantine timelines issued last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The intent of the shortened isolation period is to focus on the timeframe in which a person is likely to be most infectious, according to the state health department.

"We know that students benefit from in-person learning, and safely continuing in-person instruction remains a priority,” Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said. “These recommendations will help local health departments and schools in handling COVID-19 cases and exposures among students and staff to ensure healthy outcomes for all.”

New Jersey schools have operated largely in-person this academic year. All students and teachers, regardless of their vaccination status, have been required to wear masks in school buildings. A vaccine requirement was implemented this academic year for all teachers and school staff.

But the recent surge in COVID-19 cases across the state has forced many school districts to pivot to remote learning. A total of 388 COVID-19 outbreaks connected to in-school activities have been identified over the past month, resulting in 2,255 reported cases, according to the state's dashboard.

Gov. Phil Murphy has said that the state has no plans to shut down in-person learning amid the uptick in COVID-19 cases among students and teachers.

New Jersey is averaging nearly 35,000 new COVID-19 infections per day, which is more than at any other point during the pandemic. More than 34% of COVID-19 tests administered over the past week have come back positive, while the state's rate of COVID-19 transmission now sits at 1.35.

More than 10,000 New Jersey residents have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 over the past two weeks, which is the most since April 2020. The number of patients in ICU and on ventilators has roughly doubled since Christmas.

More than 400 people have died of COVID-19 over the last week, the highest total in about a year.


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