Parents hang a sign at the Edgemont School entrance. KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

Montclair schools this week were a hair away from joining a statewide trend.

Fewer New Jersey school systems are operating entirely remotely, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday. Eighty-six districts have started entirely in-person instruction, up by six districts from a week ago and nine since winter break.

Montclair was slated to join the 414 offering hybrid instruction (up from 348 on Jan. 4), with some students in and some out of the classroom at any given time on Monday. But as a dispute with the Montclair Education Association over coronavirus safety continued to keep teachers awaysee ongoing coverage at MontclairLocal.news — the district instead remained one of 270 teaching students entirely remotely (a figure down 55 school districts over the last week, and 69 over the last month).

According to Murphy’s numbers, 41 districts are using some sort of a mix of the in-person, hybrid or remote models, down from 47 at the start of the year.

The trend toward in-person instruction continues even as the entire state remains in so-called “orange” zones for coronavirus risk — regionalized classifications meant to help school districts size up the danger as they make local decisions about whether, and to what extent, to open to in-person learning. Green is the lowest risk, escalating to yellow, orange and then red. Dr. Edward Lifshitz, medical director of the state’s Communicable Disease Service, said Monday he anticipates regions moving toward yellow in the next few weeks if current trends continue.

The moves also come as the state released new guidance last week that suggests districts shouldn’t be quite as strict about their health safety protocols. Notably, state guidance no longer says schools in orange zones should consider shutting down classrooms just because some students or teachers show COVID-19-like symptoms, if no one has tested positive. But if two or more test positive, the schools should consider closing classrooms or buildings, the state now says.

Lifshitz said Monday that’s because coronavirus transmission has been low in schools overall, and learning was frequently being disrupted because of illnesses that hadn’t actually turned out to be from the coronavirus.

“These are people who aren’t sick but were exposed to people who are mildly ill who we didn’t know have COVID,” he said.

The new guidance also says staff or students who’ve been in close contact with people who have the coronavirus, and are in green or yellow zones, should stay home for 10 days, down from 14. The guidance still lists 14 days for people in orange and red zones.

Restaurants eligible for grants

A new grant funded by DoorDash and administered by the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association will make funds available to restaurants to offset COVID-related challenges. Restaurants will be able to apply for $2,500 or $5,000 to pay rent, purchase cold-weather equipment, purchase protective equipment or fund other expenses.

Murphy, at his Monday coronavirus press briefing, noted restaurants don’t need to be NJHRA members to apply.

New hotline, vaccination scheduling troubles

New Jersey on Monday opened its new coronavirus vaccine hotline, at 855-568-0545, to help residents with questions about the available vaccines and the state’s scheduling process. For now, state Health Commissioner Judith M. Persichilli said, operators can’t usually help residents schedule directly, since vaccine demand still radcially outstrips supply. But she said that would change as supplies ramp up.

Instead, callers will get help navigating the state’s vaccination scheduling system, which notifies registered residents when appointments become available. Many county and community sites use the state system, but not all.

“Everyone who wants to be vaccinated will be vaccinated,” Murphy said. Persichilli said as the state gets more supplies — and as a vaccine by Johnson and Johnson looks likely to get emergency use authorization soon — the disparity between demand and supply should start to ease out.

But in the meantime, the state Monday closed its vaccine distribution center at Rowan College of South Jersey for the day. It’s one of six “mega-sites” that serve thousands of residents per day. Tuesday, it was to close its mega-site in Bergen County, at the Meadowlands, also just for the day. Residents previously scheduled for those sites on those dates would be contacted to reschedule, Persichilli said.

The state has been receiving about 100,000 coronavirus doses a week — about half from Pfizer and half from Moderna. Persichilli said the doses are distributed to the mega-sites, community and county-run sites and others via an allocation framework based on inventory, throughput at the site, population density, disease burden and equity.

“We must continue to balance efficiency with equity,” she said.

And Persichilli acknowledged a significant issue at the Rowan University site, as well as some others: The site hadn’t been scheduling residents who received their first dose of vaccine for required follow-up doses, meant to be given three weeks later. Without a second dose, effectiveness of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine drops off significantly. Persichilli and Murphy had previously said vaccination sites should be scheduling second doses before patients who’ve received their first check out.

The county had instead been telling residents it was limited because the New Jersey Vaccination Scheduling System couldn’t be used to schedule second doses. Persichilli said those who were never scheduled for second doses would be contacted to do so, and the NJVSS system would be updated to allow direct scheduling of second doses this week.

An earlier version of this post misstated the location of the Gloucester County mega-site.

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