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More school districts will begin regular testing of asymptomatic K-to-12 students and staff for COVID-19 and report the results along with vaccination rates to the state Health Department starting later this month, officials said Wednesday. 

Screening testing will be done at 758 public school districts and private schools that have signed up for $267 million in federal grants to subsidize the testing in an effort to get a better picture of where the virus is spreading, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said at a coronavirus briefing.

The enrolled schools cover 1.4 million students and staff. 

Testing will be done on the school campus by a vendor and only with consent from a parent, according to guidelines issued to schools last week.

How much testing will be done at a particular school will be based on how prevalent COVID-19 is in a particular region of the state. For instance, guidelines say students in a low-transmissions region may not have to be screened at all but students engaged in contact sports in areas with high transmission may be tested twice a week.

Rapid antigen testing will be done, followed by a PCR test if a student or staffer tests positive initially.

Schools will have to submit their test findings to the state each week beginning Oct. 26 under a directive Persichilli issued Wednesday. The results will eventually be posted each week in "aggregate form" on the department's COVID-19 dashboard, but it was unclear if individual districts or schools would be listed.

Schools will also have to report vaccination rates among their students and staff to the state as well. 

All teachers and staff need to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or face regular testing at least one or two times per week. Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday that this includes bus drivers who are district employees or contractors. 

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No vaccine has yet been approved for children under 12. 

The vaccination rate for 12- to 17-year-olds still lags behind the statewide average of 65%, with about 60% in that age group having at least one dose.

But that rate drops to about 56% when just ages 12 to 15 are included. "We are concerned about the low rate, because these age groups are most likely to have contact with those under 12, who are ... vulnerable and not eligible to be vaccinated," Persichilli said this week.

Almost a month into the school year, there have been 69 outbreaks reported in 62 districts statewide, with 319 students and 60 staff members infected, officials said Wednesday. But that covers only cases believed to be caused by in-school transmission and not students or staff who become infected outside of school. 

State health officials said Wednesday that they were pleased so far that the number of outbreaks has been relatively low, considering that New Jersey has 2,493 public schools.

"Overall the trends are certainly reassuring," said Dr. Ed Lifshitz, the Health Department's medical director. 

In the general population, some key COVID-19 metrics such as hospitalizations and those in critical care have plateaued in recent weeks.

Scott Fallon has covered the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in March 2020. To get unlimited access to the latest news about the pandemic's impact on New Jersey,  please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: fallon@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @newsfallon 

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