CAMDEN, NJ — On paper, resuming in-person school activities amid the coronavirus pandemic may sound simple and straightforward.
Take school buses.
During the school advisory board meeting last week a slide outlined the procedure. One individual per seat, face masks worn by all, no eating or drinking, buses cleaned between runs and sanitized every night.
But Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs knows it’s not that simple.
“These are kids after all,” McCombs told TAPinto Camden during an interview. “We can have every safety protocol in place, comply with CDC and other guidelines, look to the best scientific minds and there may still be situations that arise. Depending on the routes and needs of special needs students…we know that bus aides are not going to be provided for each and every bus for instance.”
That means that although bus drivers will be able to monitor students on their way to school, they won’t be able to keep an eye on every single student at all times.
“Even if there were bus aides on every bus making sure face masks were kept on, they can’t control every nuance,” McCombs continued. “We’re doing everything possible, and although some things may be outside of our control, we should be mitigating and minimizing any issues through training.”
And that’s all before students even get into school buildings.
The first day of school is now set for Sept. 8. The date for parents to opt their kids out of in-person instruction has been updated to Aug. 10. However, such liberties are not equally being afforded to teachers and other faculty.
Staff members, one-third of which recently indicated they would not be comfortable with returning to classrooms, will need to provide a reason for “special accommodation” prior to working only remotely for the school year.
“Reasons staff may receive accommodations include childcare/dependent care and medical…for example — people who are at increased risk for severe illness as defined by the CDC,” said district spokesperson Alisha Brown.
McCombs said it won’t be “exactly the same” as the option afforded to students. Teachers solely fearing for their health because of the ongoing pandemic is not currently an allowable reason on its own to opt out.
This brings a new challenge: Will there be enough teachers in buildings to keep all classes up and running?
“We do know we will have to depend on substitutes,” said McCombs. “Even during a non-COVID period, we depended on substitutes when a staff member got sick or for other reasons. Those things continue with the new layer of the pandemic. We are anticipating that our need for them will increase.”
Given that the district is not planning on making new hires, in the event there are not enough substitutes McCombs said the district has to get inventive.
“That could include exploring other ways to provide that education to students [such as] paraprofessionals with certificates…we’ll have to be very strategic with our existing staff — with the possibility of combining some classes or splitting students as needed,” she said.
The school district announced a hybrid of remote and in-person learning last week, which follows state regulations, with a series of safeguards that will be in place such as plexiglass barriers, limits on capacity and face mask requirements. When asked whether "live learning," wherein students tune in from home, could occur concurrently to teachers educating 10 students in person, McCombs said that legally it may not be possible but the district is looking into an array of options.
Schools concerned with providing the appropriate quality of education to students will simultaneously be confronting the coronavirus pandemic. While testing won’t be conducted in schools, steps are being put in place in the event someone tests positive.
McCombs said schools will have isolation rooms to place anyone that is symptomatic. If a student tests positive, she said CDC and other health guidelines will be followed.
According to the CDC, “make sure that staff and families know that they (staff) or their children (families) should not come to school, and that they should notify school officials if they (staff) or their child (families) become sick with COVID-19 symptoms, test positive for COVID-19, or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 symptoms or a confirmed or suspected case.”
Dr. Wayne Yankus, a former president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, reiterated that recommendations also suggest that the child’s classmates be quarantined at home for 14 days. The individual who became sick should then be kept home for a minimum of 10 days and not be allowed inside a building unless they have been without fever for at least 24 hours.
While the CDC outlines proactive measures that could be taken and instructions on what to do if a case or cases arise, it is vague on the prospect of closing entire school buildings. More information on re-opening plans will be made available as the start of the school year approaches, McCombs said.
Meanwhile, advocates in the city are fighting for school buildings to not open at all until it is safer to do so.
"We're pushing for schools not to rush to open fully," Byheijja Sabree, co-founder of Camden Parent’s Union said over the phone. "We believe it is more feasible to come up with a more comprehensive plan and wait to see what numbers look like since Camden remains a hot spot."
The city is hovering around 2,500 cases and has confirmed at least 70 deaths linked to the virus.
Sabree, who is also a mother, pointed to the fact the school board and City Council have yet to hold in-person meetings, which should indicate that the opening of school buildings is premature. She believes the district should consider routes taken elsewhere in the country, allowing for remote learning to continue through the end of the year.
School officials have previously indicated that it would only be able to take that step if the state allowed.
The Camden Parent Union made a number of other demands Monday during a press conference: more staff on hand to support in-person functions, police-free schools, and "equitable access to online learning."