New Jersey schools must provide weekly reports on COVID-19 infections among staff and students and immunization rates starting Oct. 26 to comply with an executive directive issued by the New Jersey Department of Health.

“This reporting will give us a more complete picture of the cases and vaccination rates among students and staff, which we can then report to you,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at an Oct. 6 coronavirus briefing with the media.

The directive, signed Oct. 7 follows Executive Order 253, which was issued Aug. 23 and requires all school employees be vaccinated by Oct. 18 or be tested at least once a week. The governor also has mandated that everyone wear masks in school buildings.

As schools implement COVID-19 testing, the data “will provide insight on the circulation of the virus among schoolchildren and school staff,” said Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “This data, however, is not a reflection of the cases that are linked to in-school transmission, which is captured through the outbreak reports.”

Since last week, there have been 30 new school outbreaks reported in New Jersey, according to the N.J. Department of Health’s Communicable Disease Service dashboard. That raises the number of cumulative school outbreaks to 69, with 379 cumulative cases linked to school outbreaks. The statistics span 62 districts, Murphy said.

At the start of the school year, Persichilli announced that $267 million in federal grants would assist local educational agencies and nonpublic schools to implement COVID-19 testing. To date, 758 public school districts and nonpublic schools have signed up for the screening testing program, according to Persichilli. “This covers 552 public, local education agencies and 206 nonpublic schools representing a little over 1.4 million students and staff,” she said.

Under the directive, all school districts must report testing data to the communicable disease reporting surveillance system, Persichilli said. “The cases reported to the department include any testing conducted by the schools, their testing vendors, and cases reported to the schools by parents, students and staff. The aggregate reporting does not replace the requirement that testing administrators report individual COVID-19 test results to their local public health authorities.”

The directive will identify the cadence of screening/testing in the schools based on the prevalence of the disease in a particular region using COVID-19 Activity Level Index scores, Persichilli said. “We’re also comparing that to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) scores, and that will identify the cadence of the testing, whether it’s once a week or twice a week, and that will be laid out for the schools,” she explained.

Schools also will report aggregate vaccination data on staff and students to the department, Persichilli said. “The department will collect the information, analyze it for trends, and when we have complete data, we will share it in an aggregate form on our dashboard. Layered strategies of testing, vaccination for those who are eligible, masking, physical distance, handwashing, and staying home when you’re sick are the best tools for keeping our schools and communities safe for in-person activities.”

Persichilli referenced a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report released Oct. 5 that demonstrates the lifesaving power of vaccinations. “It found that COVID-19 vaccinations may have helped prevent hundreds of thousands of new COVID-19 infections and tens of thousands of deaths, particularly among seniors,” she said.

As it pertains to children, there have been no new reports in New Jersey of multisystem inflammatory syndrome, Persichilli said, noting that there are 133 cumulative cases in the state. None of those children currently are hospitalized, she said.

Health officials expect an uptick in COVID-19 infection rates after Thanksgiving. “We do expect it to be, based on what we know right now, within a range that can be handled,” Persichilli said.

While it’s too early after the opening of schools to make any final conclusions, the data — despite some reports of in-school transmission — is reassuring, said N.J. Department of Health adviser Dr. Ed Lifshitz. “One of the things we do pay attention to is trends over time and age of those people testing positive,” he said. “We’re not just looking at what’s happening in schools but looking at all 0- to 5-year-olds, 5- to 11-year-olds, etc. We’re too early to give any definitive trends now because the school year has just begun and we’re just beginning to see some of those numbers start, but overall, it’s relatively reassuring, meaning that the overall trends are decreasing.”

While transmission rates in some of the younger populations aren’t decreasing as much as older populations, “that would be expected as they’re going back to school and beginning to be exposed more and so forth,” Lifshitz said. “It’s really too early for me to say definitively that we’re seeing trends here, but the overall patterns are positive as far as what we’re seeing.”

During the media briefing, Murphy clarified that Executive Order 253 requiring all school staff to be either fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or face regular COVID-19 testing includes bus drivers — “regardless of whether they’re district employees or independently contracted,” he said. “We’re doing all we can to ensure that the school day is as safe as possible for all of our kids, and that commitment begins at the bus stop.”