Keep holidays small, advises Morris District schools super, warning of more COVID closures

Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast addresses virtual Morris School District board meeting, Sept. 14, 2020. Screen shot by Kevin Coughlin
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Gov. Phil Murphy has said it. Dr. Anthony Fauci has said it.

And now, the superintendent of the Morris School District has joined the chorus urging everyone to go small this holiday season.

“While we all hope to have a chance to relax and recharge during days off from school, please think carefully before planning vacations and holiday get-togethers,” Supt. Mackey Pendergrast said Friday in a message to the regional district, which serves 5,700 students from Morristown, Morris Township and Morris Plains.

morris school district logo smallHe blamed small family- and social gatherings for rising numbers of COVID-19 infections, which have disrupted in-person instruction at district schools throughout the fall.

Morristown High School and the Frelinghuysen Middle School closed their doors this week, and the Normandy Park and Woodland elementary schools switched to all-virtual classes for 14 days.

Expect more of the same “with little warning,” Pendergrast said, urging the community to redouble its mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing to minimize disruptions and “ensure the safety of our staff, students, and families.”

The U.S. has set records this month for single-day new cases of COVID-19. Murphy and Fauci, an infectious disease expert on President Trump’s coronavirus task force, both have advised limiting holiday gatherings to slow the spread.

“We do not want a Thanksgiving dinner to turn tragic because someone unwittingly exposed a large number of their family members to the coronavirus,” the governor said during a recent press briefing.

“You better consider whether you want to do that now (gather for the holidays) or maybe just forestall it and just wait and say, you know, this is an unfortunate and unusual situation, I may not want to take the risk,” Fauci told Good Morning America.

Reminding parents that a 14-day quarantine is required for anyone who returns from travel to 41 states and territories on the New Jersey Travel Advisory List, Pendergrast added, “please proceed with the appropriate caution when it comes to non-essential personal travel.”

Take special care when eating meals with anyone beyond your immediate household, said the superintendent, citing research suggesting even short exposure to an infected person can result in transmission.

That could be “15 minutes’ cumulative time within 24 hours, which could mean three separate interactions of 5 minutes each,” he said, asserting “we cannot let our guard down.”

The full statement is below.


 

From the Morris School District:

HAGA CLIC PARA ESPAÑOL

Oct. 30, 2020

Dear Morris School District Community:

Throughout the summer we focused on meticulous, transparent planning in order to create an architecture–one anchored in science and in the needs of our community–that could withstand and adapt to the uncertain impact of the coronavirus. Collaboratively constructed plans along with the extraordinary work of our teachers, counselors, and staff and the ongoing resilience of the entire district community have helped us stay the course in these difficult times. I am very grateful for everyone’s dedicated, concerted effort throughout the school reopening process. As a result, our district has been able to remain open for in-person instruction and provide meaningful virtual instruction at every grade level for the first two months, thus giving our students an important foundation for moving forward this year.

However, we cannot let our guard down. We are now seeing a significant increase in new cases in our local area and increasing rates of transmission, positivity (up to 20 percent in places), and hospitalization throughout NJ. Although the trajectory of the data is daunting, we have learned some key lessons in these opening months that can help guide us in the next phase.

I wanted to share a few important reminders derived from the MSD’s lessons learned so far:

  • The combination of mask wearing, six feet of social distancing, and proper hand hygiene is a potent mitigation strategy that greatly reduces the threat of coronavirus spreading in our community. Evidence shows nationwide that there has been little transmission occurring within the school setting itself. This fact bodes well for our potential to extend students’ time in school later this year if Morris County’s coronavirus risk level returns to low and if other external and internal conditions allow.
  • Cases in the Morris School District have, however, been traced to transmission in family or other social settings outside of school–and they don’t necessarily involve large gatherings. It is critical that we continue to be diligent about following faithfully and consistently all recommended protective measures (especially mask wearing and social distancing) both in and out of school, even when we are spending time with close family and friends.
  • Relatedly, please be especially cautious if you eat meals with others who are not part of your immediate household. Eating with friends, colleagues, or extended family introduces risk whenever social distancing and mask wearing cannot be maintained.
  • New research suggests that transmission can occur even when an individual is exposed to an infectious person in short intervals–15 minutes’ cumulative time within 24 hours, which could mean three separate interactions of 5 minutes each. This underscores the importance of wearing a mask (both you and those around you) and remaining at least six feet apart.
  • The upcoming holidays may bring additional challenges to our community’s ability to prevent the spread of coronavirus: college students returning home, families travelling to other locations, more indoor events, etc. While we all hope to have a chance to relax and recharge during days off from school, please think carefully before planning vacations and holiday get-togethers. A fourteen-day quarantine is required for anyone who returns from travel to an area on the NJ Travel Advisory List (which currently includes 41 states and territories), so please proceed with the appropriate caution when it comes to non-essential personal travel.

With the change in weather and the holiday season approaching, we should prepare for the possibility of an increase in periodic classroom or school closures, which may be announced with little warning. In order to ensure the safety of our staff, students, and families, and to minimize the disruption to our in-school schedules, we must keep modeling the very best behaviors and practices in school, in our families, and in the community.

Thank you for your continued support.

Sincerely,

Mackey Pendergrast
Superintendent of Schools

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