Public health officials have updated guidance used by school districts to decide whether to implement remote learning or return to the classroom.

The amount of in-school transmission of the virus is certainly lower than officials "feared going into this," according to State Health Department Medical Director Dr. Ed Lifshitz.

"Why are we now saying that some people can return to school where earlier we would have said to keep them out? These are people who aren't sick but were exposed to people who were mildly ill," Lifshitz said, responding at a news conference to a question about the updated guidance.

In instances involving mild symptoms among people not confirmed as having COVID-19, schools noted that keeping out students or staff who had been around such potential cases without test results was causing high levels of disruption, he said, while risk of virus transmission was "very low."

As of Monday, 86 schools were offering all in-person instruction, while another 270 school districts reported being all remote, according to Gov. Phil Murphy.

Across the state, 414 school districts reported shifting to hybrid mode — with both in-person and remote instruction — and 41 districts reported offering a mix of some form of all three modes, he said.

Since August, there have been 121 school outbreaks of coronavirus reported across more than 600 districts, involving a comprehensive total of 597 cases among students and staff, according to the NJ COVID-19 online dashboard.

New examples given in the guidance issued to local health departments place priority on dealing with individual classrooms or grade levels in which a potential outbreak is reported, while attempting to allow students and staff not affected by new cases to continue with hybrid or in-person instruction, when possible.

"The more people a person interacts with, the closer the physical interaction, the more
sharing of supplies or equipment there is by multiple people, and the longer the duration of that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread," according to the guidance updated Jan. 19.

All six regions of the state have remained at the orange or "high risk" level of COVID-19 transmission since late November.

Schools within high risk regions still are told to "consider implementing fully remote learning" according to the updated guidance, which also offers the new criteria for isolating new positive cases and close contacts.

While it is not required at the state level, the updated COVID-19 risk guidance still recommends that any school within a region that spikes to red or "very high level" switch to fully remote instruction.

The state is likely to continue at the orange risk level and is not likely to move up to red anytime soon, Lifshitz said.

Three weeks earlier, 77 school districts reported offering full in-person instruction, while 339 districts started 2021 in an all-remote model and 348 school districts were offering a hybrid model of in-person and remote instruction.

At that point, 47 districts also reported that they were using some combination of in-person, hybrid or all-remote across multiple buildings.

A number of school districts, including Newark, Trenton, Jersey City and Woodbridge, already have announced they would not be resuming any amount of in-person instruction for well over a month — and in some cases, later.

The risk of COVID-19 transmission is higher among full sized, in-person classes and activities, while being lessened when social distance is maintained, in part through the use of "cohorts" — smaller groups of students on a fixed schedule, state officials have said.

The updated state guidance also adds that clubs, assemblies and sports should be recommended to follow the same approach as the rest of a school community when it comes to minimizing or restricting activities, depending on new confirmed cases or potential exposure.

Since last spring, the state has left each school district to develop its own response and instruction plan during the pandemic, resulting in a varied mix of full-remote, hybrid, and in-person instruction through the duration.

Educators also continue to wait for the state to rollout the rest of its 1B vaccine eligibility group, which state health officials repeatedly have said is contingent on additional vaccine supply being delivered by the federal government.

“We’ve said from the beginning the educators should receive priority access to the vaccine. It’s an important step toward a safer return to in-person learning,” New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Baker said in a written statement on Jan. 14.

Where to get COVID-19 vaccine in NJ