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Hundreds Quarantining in New Jersey School District

More than 800 students and staff members in one of New Jersey’s largest school districts are currently in quarantine because of possible exposure to the coronavirus, just three weeks after the district began the school year with a mask-optional policy.

According to the Covid-19 tracker for the district, Toms River, at least 817 students and staff are at home after going into quarantine earlier this week. The figure is equal to about 5.5 percent of the district’s student population and a little more than 1 percent of its staff.

There have been 270 confirmed cases of the coronavirus — 236 among students and 34 among staff members — in the district so far this year. With about 14,600 students, Toms River, in Ocean County, had the sixth-largest student body in the state last year, according to enrollment data.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, announced in June that school districts would be allowed to create their own mask-wearing policies after the Toms River district pushed back on the governor’s initial plans for a statewide school mask mandate in the fall.

But in August, amid a surge in cases of Covid-19 fueled by the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, Governor Murphy required mask-wearing once more — though he included an exemption for “extreme heat indoors.” The policy does not specify what constitutes “extreme heat.”

Citing that exception, Toms River made masks optional for students and staff at the beginning of the school year. The district then began to require masks starting Sept. 20 after the heat and humidity were no longer considered excessive, Michael Kenny, a spokesman for the district, said.

In a statement on Wednesday, the district said masks had been optional for only eight days at the start of the school year, and only in spaces where air conditioning was not available.

“Generally speaking, our numbers are consistent with a community at high risk of transmission, as Ocean County currently is,” the district said.

Mr. Kenny added that more than 70 students have been released from quarantine since Wednesday.

The county’s case numbers remain high, though flat, according to an analysis by The New York Times, with an average of 215 cases reported per day. Forty-seven percent of Ocean County residents are fully vaccinated, compared with 64 percent of residents statewide.

Studies have shown that schools can operate safely during the pandemic with strict safety measures, including ventilation, mask-wearing, and quarantining.

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