HAZLET NJ: The start of the new school year is upon us. Each time you hear something about the plan for students and teachers its changes - virtual learning, in-person, cohorts, the list of obstacles for children to have traditional in-person learning goes on and on.

Teachers and families are struggling to navigate the fall school schedule that allows for kids to go back to school in-person and parents to get back to work. The New Jersey Education Association union (NJEA), made an aggressive push to convince its schools to go all virtual. On the other hand, Gov. Murphy encouraged schools to implement and provide a safety plan that would permit in-person classes, and at the same time give families the option of choosing all virtual if they wish to. Therefore, schools must provide a virtual option. According to state officials, the latest numbers for back to school out of 723 school districts in NJ that have submitted plans: 388 have opened this week or within the next couple weeks with in-person combined with virtual learning, 69 districts are all in-person and 238 districts will open all-remote until a certain date.

For those that are opening all remote, they have to provide the state with a report of why they are not ready to have in-person classes. Also, 28 districts will have some combination of all-in-person classes for some students and remote classes for others. That includes districts where elementary schools will have in-person classes, while older children learn remotely or with a hybrid model.

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What may surprise many in the midst of uncertainty, a day camp traditionally ran out of Middletown, Camp Coconuts, opened this summer at the Hazlet Swim Club, serving over 300 campers who all returned home happy, healthy, socialized and covid-free. Correct- over 300 campers, along with 100+ courageous staff had a fun in the sun, running, swimming, socializing, sports playing, craft making, STEAM experiencing, amazing time. While many schools were trying to figure out how to go back in September, Camp Coconuts never paused but moved forward with a successful and extremely active, safe summer camp. 

The partnership between Hazlet Swim Club and Camp Coconuts was formed with Camp Coconuts owner Deana Valente and the governing body of Hazlet. TAPinto spoke with Hazlet Mayor Michael Glackin in June when the partnership was formed: “This is a win-win for both Hazlet Township and Camp Coconuts,” said Hazlet Mayor Michael Glackin. “Camp Coconuts is an experienced summer camp operator with an established staff dedicated to giving kids the quintessential summer experience. Camp Coconuts is well-prepared to run a summer day camp under the CDC guidelines for COVID-19."  Both Valente and Glackin were working towards the same goal to provide summer in-person fun for the community's children, in a safe environment. 

Fast-forward to today and the mission is accomplished!

It's an example of good government partnering with good business, putting taxpayers first.  The partnership saved over 100 summer jobs, provided healthy fun for hundreds of kids and provided many local families with child-care and peace of mind. Many parents desperate for child-care, were provided with a way to go back to work, knowing their children were active and happy. 

Camp Coconuts Owner, Deana Valente, (affectionately called Coach D by the campers), commented, “What we faced as camp professionals during the 2020 season was challenging on an entirely new level, but not impossible to adjust to. Covid-19 hit and we hit it harder. We knew we could not let our kids down. Our summer program for the 2020 season was committed to being outside 99% of the time,” says Valente, whose camp operates at the Hazlet Swim and Tennis Club, serving families from Monmouth and Ocean Counties. “Our group of campers and staff were treated as their own independent family, aka ‘a pod’- with no intermingling between groups outside their cohort. These groups assembled, played, swam, and ate together. Our pod set-up allowed campers to come together without having the need to wear masks or socially distance while playing within their group camp”. This meant campers still received swim lessons, science & nature, athletics, arts, team building, special events, and a ton of other fun programming."

According to Camp Coconuts Director, "Countless Families who sent their children to Camp Coconuts this summer say that they saw their children’s smiles and personalities return within only a couple of days of camp. Most families professed that the great reward of a camp experience, far outweighed the small risk involved- given the outdoor environment and the safety precautions put in place."

The social isolation and virtual learning and play, have left many children depressed, anxious and confused. Society in general is suffering with an uptick in depression, suicide and substance abuse.  Children need socialization. 

One mom from Middletown, commented, "Camp Coconuts saved our summer. I can't tell you how happy we were to see the smiles back on our children's faces. They came home sun-kissed, chattering about their great day, excited to go back the next day, and they were not looking for electronic devices. Really, Camp Coconuts made such a positive impact, bringing back normal during an uncertain and stressful time. We will be back next summer!" 

“Everyone who was here needed to be and everyone who was watching saw what they needed to see, and it was incredible” says Valente. “The positive energy was palpable. I don’t know what happens next but what I do know is what we accomplished here positively impacted the lives of so many children. They will look back at this time and remember the love, the support they had, and the fun amidst a world of uncertainty. I pray this world gets back to normalcy soon. It is more clear to me now after spending eight weeks with children, during the pandemic, that our kids need their teachers, and they need school. They need the in-person interaction. It is not about virtual learning or virtual playing. They need to socialize and see reflection in the faces of their peers and adults who are guiding them. For those of us who lived this, we will always share an incredible memory from this overwhelmingly positive experience,” says Valente.

According to Valente, the biggest challenge in running a day camp during the pandemic was managing the stress of the seasonal team. “These amazing young people took on a lot of responsibility- including social responsibility- in deciding to work at camp this summer. Countless staff (and campers, and parents) were getting covid-tested throughout the summer, any time anyone had symptoms- sore throat, stomach ache, etc., they would be tested.  It was all allergies, summer colds and stomach bugs-but the stress was real, and sometimes debilitating.” 

With the feelings of a bittersweet end to summer Valente joined her team at checkout to see campers off during the last days at camp. Smiles, tears, and hugs could be seen all around. This leaves us with the question and the hope that this is not the last time, until next summer, that these kids enjoy a semblance of this kind of happiness and socialization. They deserve to go back to school and their teachers deserve to have the opportunity to teach in-person. Virtual learning is just that, virtual. Nothing can replace the in-person classroom experience. Teachers cannot be replaced by videos and Google classroom.