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The number of students, teachers and school staff who have contracted or transmitted the coronavirus at school rose to 285 this week after four new school outbreaks were reported, state health officials said Wednesday.

The new school outbreaks — defined as cases in which two or more people caught the virus in class or during other academic activities — were in Cape May, Bergen and Salem counties.

That brings the totals to 70 school outbreaks involving 285 people since the schools began reopening for the new school year in late August, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Though the numbers keep rising every week, Gov. Phil Murphy said the school outbreak statistics remain below what state officials were expecting when schools reopened for in-person classes.

“I think schools have done an extraordinary job and all of the parties who are associated with it deserve credit,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at his press briefing Wednesday.

The extensive rules for schools, which include social distancing guidelines for classrooms and strict mask requirements, have made schools among the safest places in the state, the governor said.

“You have a bunch of things working for you in that setting,” Murphy added.

This week’s numbers include two new school outbreaks in Cape May (with a total of five cases); one in Bergen (with three cases) and one in Salem (with two cases), according to the state data. There were also four new cases in Ocean and two new cases in Mercer related to school outbreaks that were previously reported.

That brings the total to 70 confirmed school outbreaks in:

  • Atlantic County: 1 school outbreak (2 cases)
  • Bergen County: 9 school outbreaks (total of 24 cases)
  • Burlington County: 4 school outbreaks (total of 10 cases)
  • Camden County: 10 school outbreaks (total of 57 cases)
  • Cape May County: 7 school outbreaks (total of 19 cases)
  • Cumberland County: 2 school outbreak (total of 5 cases)
  • Gloucester County: 4 school outbreaks (total of 18 cases)
  • Hudson County: 2 school outbreaks (total of 10 cases)
  • Hunterdon County: 1 school outbreak (3 cases)
  • Mercer County: 2 school outbreaks (total of 6 cases)
  • Middlesex County: 1 school outbreak (3 cases)
  • Monmouth County: 4 school outbreaks (total of 12 cases)
  • Ocean County: 5 school outbreaks (total of 27 cases)
  • Passaic County: 2 school outbreaks (total of 19 cases)
  • Salem County: 5 school outbreaks (total of 22 cases)
  • Somerset County: 3 school outbreaks (total of 9 cases)
  • Sussex County: 3 school outbreaks (total of 7 cases)
  • Union County: 1 school outbreak (23 cases)
  • Warren County: 4 school outbreaks (total of 9 cases)

Only Essex and Morris counties have reported no school outbreaks, the state said.

The numbers include both public and private K-12 schools.

The increase comes as Murphy has said he has no plans to call for a statewide school closure similar to the one he ordered in March at the start of the pandemic. Instead, the state has allowed school districts to decide individually if they want to offer in-person classes or go all-remote as the second wave of the pandemic hits New Jersey.

“We can not view our schools as monolith like New York City,” Murphy said, referring to the city’s decision to begin offering in-person classes at public schools again earlier this week.

All 21 of New Jersey’s counties are now labeled orange on the state’s COVID-19 activity map, signaling the schools should “consider” moving to all-remote learning.

Schools would not be required to move to all-virtual classes unless their region moves to red on the map because of “very high” COVID-19 activity in the area.

CORONAVIRUS RESOURCES: Live map tracker | Newsletter | Homepage

At last count, 438 New Jersey school districts were operating under a hybrid model blending in-person and remote learning, state officials said. Another 246 districts are all-remote or moving to all-remote learning, 89 were offering all in-person classes and 38 were offering a blend of different models in various schools or grades.

Murphy recently announced all indoor youth, high school and adult recreation sports will be suspended starting this weekend until at least January. But he has not imposed any other new restrictions on schools beyond the mandatory mask and social distancing rules that have been in place since the start of the school year.

Murphy and state health officials have said they are not alarmed by the number of school outbreaks, which they say are relatively low considering New Jersey has hundreds of school districts and more than 3,000 public and private school buildings.

But some critics, including the New Jersey Education Association, have said the school outbreak numbers are misleading because they only include a fraction of the total number of COVID-19 cases reported at schools.

The outbreak numbers only include cases where contact tracers concluded students, teachers and other school workers gave COVID-19 to each other at school in the classroom or during related activities. Any cases involving sports teams are not included. Neither are cases where students or teachers contracted the virus outside school, from their families or during other activities.

“School buildings and school-related activities are far more dangerous than the state’s data indicate. The coming holiday season, where travel and gatherings are inevitable, will undoubtedly make the situation even worse,” the NJEA, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said in a Nov. 19 statement.

In many cases, school districts have announced large numbers of positive coronavirus cases or shut down school buildings, but those cases have not been deemed school outbreaks by the state because contract tracers did not determine the virus was transmitted on school property.

One of the largest outbreaks, so far, appears to have been in a Union County school where 23 people transmitted or contracted the virus at school, according to the data. Another large outbreak involving more than 20 people was reported at a Camden County school.

State officials have not released the names of the schools where the outbreaks occurred, the dates or any information about how the virus was transmitted within schools. Information is limited to protect the privacy of the students and school staff who tested positive, health officials said.

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Kelly Heyboer may be reached at [email protected].

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