At least 864 students and 26 staff members from the Toms River, New Jersey, school district are in quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19, officials say.
One of the largest school districts in the Garden State, Toms River has more than 15,000 students. The feared outbreak, which occurred just three weeks into the school year, has affected about 6 percent of the student population.
More than 218 Toms River students have tested positive for COVID since classes began this September. The positive tests have sent many others who came into contact with those students into isolation.
Experts are trying to figure out what caused the virus to spread so rapidly among students and staff.
The district was widely criticized at the beginning of the fall semester for making masks optional in classrooms with no air conditioning. The district made masks mandatory last week.
Superintendent Stephen Genco says the district is "not nearly" at the point at which it will close schools again due to COVID, adding that the number of students in quarantine is trending downward each day.
Genco believes the positive cases are mostly connected to students' late-summer activities from before classes began and that the numbers will continue going down as kids spend more time in masks in school.
The state Department of Health is working with the school district to determine the source of the outbreak. Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday that there's no evidence yet to suggest the district's short-lived mask policy played a role in the spread.
New Jersey is currently managing 39 outbreaks across 16 of 21 counties. The state recently surpassed 1 million positive PCR tests since March 2020, meaning that approximately 1 in 9 New Jerseyans have had COVID-19 at some point.