The Hamilton Township School District will return to a full-remote instructional model for the rest of 2020.

District schools will start full remote Monday, Nov. 30 and remain there until at least Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. HTSD superintendent Scott Rocco said in a Nov. 20 letter to parents that the district has struggled to maintain an appropriate in-person learning environment for students due to increasing cases of COVID-19, staff shortages due to quarantining requirements and delays in receiving COVID-19 testing and test results.

As of Nov. 20,  two of the district’s three high schools, one of its three middle schools and two elementary schools were already using full-remote instruction due to COVID-19 cases or staffing issues associated with required quarantines. Six more schools were one case away from joining them, spurring the district’s decision to move entirely remote.

Since Oct. 31, HTSD has seen 25 confirmed positive cases, with those cases coming in contact with 466 people inside district schools.

“These are challenging times for our school community and families,” Rocco wrote. “As a school community, we have and will continue to deal with the challenges faced by this pandemic, adapt to the situation, and provide both a remote and hybrid instructional model for all of our students.  Over the many months of this pandemic, we have made improvements to our instructional model based on what we have learned. We will continue to do so during this period of remote learning.”

Remote learning will be five days per week, with Wednesdays as a half day for students. On Wednesday afternoons, teachers will be available to provide academic support to students—one of the adjustments made due to parent feedback on past remote learning experiences.

Hamilton was the second district in Mercer County to move to full-remote instruction for the rest of 2020, making an announcement just three days after Lawrence Township Public Schools made a similar decision in late November.

LTPS superintendent Ross Kasun said on Nov. 17 that he made the decision based on the same factors Rocco did: 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 in Lawrence. “My responsibilities include being the steward of safety and learning. Both would be compromised by instituting what we previously planned.”

Statewide daily cases were 5-times higher in mid-November as they were at the beginning of October. Positive COVID-19 cases in New Jersey have increased from an average of 760 per day to 3,212 daily in six weeks.

Hamilton has seen cases spike within the township, too, regularly recording 30 or more new cases a day as of mid-November. In a five-day span between Nov. 13 and Nov. 17, the township registered 208 new cases of COVID-19 in total—more than the entire month of October.

A growing number of school districts around New Jersey have made similar calls as Hamilton did in light of the new wave of COVID-19 cases. The districts include Delran, East Brunswick, Jersey City, Newark and Paterson.

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.

Kasun said that in his district so many staff members have had to quarantine that there would not have been enough teachers to cover the classes of quarantining staff members had LTPS been using a hybrid model at all grade levels. Lawrence schools opened in waves, starting with special education students in October and elementary school students in early November. LTPS 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.

“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.”

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

Still, Rocco struck a hopeful tone, saying a return to at least some normalcy is near.

“I still believe, at some point in the near future, we will overcome this pandemic and our students will be able to return to our schools and classrooms in a manner that is similar to past years,” Rocco wrote. “To get there, we need to continue to work together, adapt to the situation, follow health and safety guidelines, support each other, and keep thinking positively about what we will be able to do in the future.”