Lawrence Township Public Schools will spend the rest of 2020—and a bit of 2021—in full-remote instruction.

Just weeks before it could complete its plan to reintroduce students to school, the district decided to call an audible by returning all students to remote learning from Wednesday, Nov. 25 until Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. It is the first school district in Mercer County to make such a call.

LTPS superintendent Ross Kasun said on Nov. 17 that he made the decision based on the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the area, a difficulty maintaining proper staffing levels and the approaching holiday season and flu season.

“Although I am saddened about not opening our schools for in-person instruction and reverting back to a complete remote model, I cannot, in good conscience, open as we planned,” Kasun wrote in a Nov. 17 letter to parents. “My responsibilities include being the steward of safety and learning. Both would be compromised by instituting what we previously planned.”

The district had been reopening schools in waves, starting with special education students in October. By Nov. 9, all PreK-3 students opting for hybrid learning had started attending school in-person several times a week.

Students in grades 4-12 have not been in a school building for instruction since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. They were scheduled to return Nov. 30, before the district’s decision to return to a full-remote model. Now, they will remain on the same schedule they have used since the start of the 2020-21 school year until at least Monday, Jan. 25, 2021.

Students in grades PreK-3 and special education students will remain in full-remote learning until after Martin Luther King Day, using schedules to be issued by the principal of each student’s school.

School buildings will be closed to nearly everyone during most of the full-remote period. Previously, staff members had been able to use classrooms even if students were remote. This will not be the case for two weeks following Thanksgiving (Nov. 30-Dec.11) and Winter Break (Jan. 4-15). Staff must work remotely during those weeks, Kasun said.

The YMCA child care program will remain open, however, and meal pickups for those who have signed up for the meal program will continue on the same schedule.

“We are heartbroken that we will not proceed on our initial reopening schedule, but are confident we are doing what’s best for keeping our students, staff, and families safe while providing the best educational program for our students,” Kasun wrote. “We knew it was a possibility that we may need to pivot from our plans during the school year, and this is one of those times.”

Statewide daily cases were 5-times higher in mid-November as they were at the beginning of October. Kasun pointed to this data specifically, saying positive COVID-19 cases in New Jersey have increased from 760 per day to 3,212 daily in six weeks.

Lawrence Township has seen an increase of its own, with double-digit new cases four times in one week after not seeing a day with 10 or more cases since May 10. In a five-day span in mid-November, the total number of new cases was triple the five days before it.

While Lawrence stood alone in Mercer County at the time of its decision, a growing number of school districts around New Jersey have made similar calls in light of the new wave of COVID-19 cases. The districts include Delran, East Brunswick, Jersey City, Newark and Paterson.

Most, like Lawrence, plan on bringing students back after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Plainfield in Union County, however, won’t attempt to return students to school buildings until February.

School districts have been left to make their own plans, with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy saying Nov. 12 that he is not planning to order another statewide shutdown.

According to state data, schools have not been a major contributor to the spread of COVID-19 especially in Mercer County. Mercer County, for example, had only had one outbreak of COVID-19 linked to a school, as of Nov. 17. That outbreak included two linked cases, which is the minimum threshold.

However, even single cases of COVID-19 within a school can cause problems, particularly with staffing. A case in one high school student, who changes classes frequently throughout the day, could force multiple teachers into a two-week quarantine.

Quarantine of 14 days also has been required of any student or staff member who has travelled out of state, has had a family member test positive for COVID-19 or has experienced COVID-19 symptoms and has not received an alternate diagnosis.

The quarantine rules—plus difficulty getting COVID-19 tests and results in a timely manner—have caused staffing issues in nearby Hamilton. The Hamilton Township School District returned all grades, K-12, to some in-person instruction simultaneously on Oct. 12.

“All of these issues mean that our ability to maintain an appropriate in person learning environment for our students will become increasingly difficult as cases continue to rise and more faculty and staff are required to quarantine,” Hamilton Township School District superintendent Scott Rocco wrote to parents there Nov. 16.

Kasun said staffing challenges were a major contributor in the decision to modify the LTPS reopening plan. Since September, more than 40 LTPS staff members have had to quarantine, and Kasun said there would not have been enough teachers to cover the classes of quarantining staff members had the district been using a hybrid model at all grade levels.

Districts across the country had been experiencing shortages of substitute teachers prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“This year, it is simply not possible to cover all classes with substitutes, as many are not available to work due to their concerns about COVID-19,” Kasun wrote. Substitute availability is almost nonexistent.”