CAMDEN, NJ — The Camden City School District (CCSD) outlined a “hybrid model” — a mix of in-person and remote learning — once schools reopen in September.

However, Superintendent Katrina McCombs said during the district's advisory board meeting Tuesday night that nothing's set in stone. 

“Reopening plans are fluid, I want to underscore that,” McCombs said during the meeting. “We welcome our teachers and staff to continue sharing their feedback as we move closer to the first day of school.”

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The superintendent emphasized that all parents have the opportunity to opt-out of in-person education, which must be done by Aug. 5. 

Camden comprises roughly 6,800 students at 18 traditional public schools, 4,350 enrolled in 11 charter schools, and 3,850 in 11 renaissance schools. McCombs said almost 700 families and nearly 300 teachers were a part of the decision-making process surrounding the hybrid model. 

Per the outline Tuesday, in-person education would take place between 8:15 a.m. and 1 p.m. with staggered dismissal times.

“As a district, safety is our number one priority,” McCombs said. “Our team is actively working to ensure that all district buildings and classrooms are ready to receive students and staff in a safe learning environment that meets the health and safety guidelines outlined by the CDC and other notable health agencies.”

Ahead of the opening of school buildings, the district will acquire personal protection equipment (PPE), map out desks in classrooms to maintain six feet of distance, limit classroom sizes to ten students, create “isolation rooms” for anyone feeling unwell, and look to improve ventilation systems in school buildings. 

In order to protect students and staff once schools open September 3, school leaders will also be updating cleaning and disinfecting procedures to adhere to CDC and EPA guidelines.

Symptoms and temperature checks will take place at home, as regular checks on site have proven ineffective and often lead to a false sense of security, McCombs said. 

“Wherever we are able we will institute one-way hallways with posted reminders, [and] tape marks on the floor to reinforce social distancing,” she added. “Additionally, we plan on utilizing separate entrances and exit points to support social distancing during arrival and dismissal times.”

A number of parents and teachers voiced displeasure with the decision to reopen buildings during the public comments portion of the meeting.

“There are still too many unanswered questions,” said Karen Borrelli-Luke, Vice President of the Camden Education Association (CEA) and Brimm Medical Arts School teacher. “I would be remiss if I did not echo the voices of the 1,100 members which I represent. Members love their job. They love their students, but they love their own families and want to return safely to them.”

Union president Keith Benson said in a statement that the CEA, which represents teachers and support staff, supports an all-remote learning model, “for a variety of health and safety reasons.”

Maggie Miller, a pre-k teacher and paraprofessional, said she’s especially concerned since she has a pre-existing condition. 

“How can we even consider bringing our children and staff back to school with the virus raging like it is?” she said. “We work with pre-k children from three to five years old. And I just can't fathom [obliging] them to wear masks and keeping them six feet apart.”

Plans to reopen have varied throughout the United States. As the Camden district laid out its preemptive plans, the Philadelphia School District across the river says it plans to begin its school year completely online. 

McCombs, a mother herself, said the state of New Jersey does not currently allow for remote learning for the entire school year. For her part, the superintendent leans toward the direction of Milwaukee. 

Milwaukee plans to start the school year fully remote until December, transition into a hybrid model from January through Spring Break, and finally, have full in-person teaching for the rest of the academic calendar. 

“Now Milwaukee is not the state of New Jersey,” McCombs said. “I've been advocating to everyone I can talk to once I found out about that model. However, at this point, that is a decision that is made by the Department of Education at the state level.”

More on the model

Once parents opt-out of in-person learning, unless extenuating circumstances present themselves - which would be handled on a case by case basis - they will not be able to opt back in until the end of January. 

As part of the hybrid model, students - who will be split into three groups - will learn two days in-person and two-days remote.

Fridays will be solely reserved for remote learning, McCombs said, which will help streamline the schedule and make school buildings available for limited services like personalized therapy and potential time slots for meetings with parents. 

The exception to the rule will be select special education programs, which will meet in-person Monday through Thursday, and virtually on Friday.”

The CCSD hopes to help parents by scheduling siblings for the same in-person learning groups.

K-8 students will be grouped based on names and high school students will likely be grouped based on “similar course loads.” Younger students will remain in classrooms and teachers move about. 

A few of the caveats come this fall (according to the proposed model): no meals will be served in school buildings, restrictions on visitors and supplies will remain in classrooms (thus no need to take textbooks home).

Meals will continue to be made available to students who are only learning online at satellite locations, school officials said. Students who are attending buildings will leave with take-home lunch, dinner and breakfast for the next day. 

With many students expected to learn remotely, school board members inquired about a number of matters.

Board vice president N’Namdee Nelson asked about preparations for ensuring the younger students keep their masks on. 

School board member Elton Custis asked about the prospect of a teacher becoming sick, how the CCSD will handle transfer students coming into the city and whether live learning will be available.

The superintendent recently stated that a third of teachers have said they will likely not return to school buildings in September. On Tuesday, she said the district will not be making additional hires and instead rely on substitutes if need be. 

As far as “live learning” - wherein students interact with teachers in real time - she said, “Yes, we will have live teachers for remote learning experiences, both live synchronous and asynchronous learning where students work independently just like they would have in classroom.”

A plan for transfer students is still in the works. 

“I’d like to hear more about the data [collected from surveys] of the experience of the students and what they felt they needed… during the remote learning,” said school board member Yolanda Whidbee. “I'm still concerned about what we're going to do about their emotional well being and the trauma that the students are experiencing because of this pandemic and the situation that we're currently in.”

The district will look to answer any lingering questions from Tuesday and address next year's curriculum during the August 25 school board meeting, McCombs said.

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