TRENTON – Schools reopening for a new year will still keep an eye on weekly Department of Health regional reports on pandemic conditions, but the state’s color-coded map will be far less likely to dictate closures and other operational changes going forward.

The COVID-19 Activity Level Index, or CALI, splits the state into six regions and assigns each to one of four color-coded tiers. Last year, schools in areas with an orange or high CALI score were urged to consider switching to all-remote. It would have been required if they’d reached red, or very high, as conditions had been in the spring of 2020, when all schools had been ordered to shut their doors.

This year, CALI scores will determine how student COVID screening tests for groups of people without symptoms should go, beyond the at-least weekly screening tests of teachers and staff who are not fully vaccinated, said Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli.

“Student screening may not be necessary in areas of low transmission but in regions with moderate, high, or very high virus activity, screening testing of students who are not fully vaccinated or random samples of 10% of students should be completed at least once a week,” Persichilli said.

Right now, every region of the state is rated moderate or high.

CALI scores are based on case rates, test positivity rates and COVID-like illnesses seen at emergency rooms. Five of six regions are currently rated moderate, the second highest level, while the Central East region is rated high. That includes Union, Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean.

A year ago, five of six regions approached September at the lowest CALI level and the other rated moderate.

“Students and staff who are not fully vaccinated will undergo testing based on the screening testing matrix found in the public health recommendations,” Persichilli said. “Individuals who test positive should be immediately excluded from school, and school-based close contact should be identified and excluded from school for 10 days in regions with low or moderate risk or 14 days in regions with high or very high risk.

“Anyone who tests positive by rapid antigen test and is asymptomatic should be additionally referred for confirmatory testing by a PCR test within two days of the initial test,” she said. “Asymptomatic exposed close contacts who are fully vaccinated do not have to quarantine, and they should just be tested in three to five days following the exposure.”

Gov. Phil Murphy said decisions on school closures won’t be tied to CALI scores because he thinks universal masking and mandatory staff vaccinations can achieve the safety objectives while avoiding the setbacks online classes cause on learning for most students.

“The preliminary data that we've looked at is pretty staggering. That's not unique to New Jersey. It's pretty staggering,” Murphy said. “… Unless this thing goes south on us in a very big way – and I'm not sure how I'd necessarily define that – we're … staying in person.”

State Department of Health medical advisor Dr. Ed Lifshitz said the activity index remains an important tool.

“Absolutely we still do look at the CALI score,” Lifshitz said. “We continue to assess it as to how to best measure what's happening in the state, and absolutely it is a definite goal to try to keep the kids in school.”

While schools aren’t outsourcing their COVID-related decisions solely to CALI scores, their approach to the coming school year will still lean on them after being taught over the last 18 months to use them.

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At Hunterdon Central Regional High School, for example, the back-to-school plan says the region’s CALI score will influence decisions such as staggering lunch schedules, daily symptom-free checklists, public access to school facilities, use of plexiglass barriers and isolation rooms for students who don’t feel well, as well as mask-wearing rules if and when the state returns control of that to local districts.

“If we go to orange, then we’re going to consider this, but in green and yellow we’re going to do that,” said Schools Superintendent Jeffrey Moore, who said operational decisions will be made in conjunction with county health officials based on local conditions.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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