October 26, 2021

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Will COVID wreck another school year for N.J. students?

For Elizabeth, a giddy mom who was thrilled to send her 8-year-old back to school for in-person learning, the answer is pretty simple.

While learning online in March 2020, her son became lethargic and depressed. He didn’t want to play outside. He didn’t want to read any more. And the sweet, enthusiastic boy who loved giving hugs was suddenly prone to angry outbursts — a stark contrast to his personality before.

And last school year, he was on an educational roller coaster. He was in a virtual learning pod for part of the year while his school was hybrid. But when his school opened for five days a week of in-person instruction, there was no room for him in the inclusion class required by his IEP.

If schools are forced to pivot yet again to hybrid or remote learning, COVID will have ruined another school year, she said.

“I felt like we were telling parents, if you just try harder, you can make up for the fact that your kid isn’t in school,” said Elizabeth, who asked her last name be withheld to protect her son’s privacy and fear of antagonizing her relationship with the district.

“I tried everything … I couldn’t give him what he got in the public school,” she said.

Finally sending her child back to school last week — where she knows he will thrive academically, socially, mentally, and emotionally — is “just joyful,” Elizabeth said. But that’s as long as schools remain fully open this year.

After 18 months of chaos and controversy, most New Jersey schools reopened last week in what many parents once hoped would be a celebratory return to normalcy. Instead, the Delta variant is fueling a rise in COVID cases, parents and schools are fighting over masks and virtual options, and medical experts are holding their breath.

“We are not going to sacrifice the health of any child, any educator, any family, or any community. We’re not going to just let COVID shut down our schools” Gov. Phil Murphy said during a recent briefing. “We’re not willing to surrender our kids to this virus, unlike those opposed to this common sense plan.”

His plan: districts at full capacity. Mandated masks. Vaccinated or regularly tested employees. And a virtual option? No longer on the table.

But will those measures be enough to make this a normal school year? Or should that even be the goal?

Some parents, educators, and administrators are appalled the question of normalcy is even up for debate — schools are essential, they say. Last year’s remote learning experiment was a disaster for many families. Kids need to return to a normal school year for full-time, in-person learning.

Others are horrified that some people even want to pursue a version of normal — we are still in a pandemic, they say, and pediatric hospitalizations have risen. To reject a virtual option is to disregard children’s health and wellbeing, they say.

The virus has surged in children — who are ineligible for vaccinations if younger than 12 years old — with hospitalizations seeing an increase since early July, but still remaining low.

Experts say there is concern COVID will wreak some havoc on the school year through potential outbreaks, but New Jersey is better positioned than most states, thanks to high vaccination rates and mask mandates. But they still stressed the same mitigation strategies: kids and school staff members should wear masks, physically distance, and learn in well-ventilated spaces. If ventilation is not possible, mask-wearing and distancing become even more important, experts say.

One notable change from last year: schools should maintain three feet of physical distancing, instead of the previous six. Close contact — used to determine quarantine measures — is defined as less than three feet for K-12 students.

Vaccinations are also crucial in reducing transmission and positive cases, although vaccinated people can still spread the virus, said David Cennimo, an infectious disease expert at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

In short: the question of COVID wrecking another year is an unanswerable question.

It depends on where your child attends school, how last year’s online learning went for them, the financial resources your district has, and what the vaccination and transmission rates are in your community. For some parents, who are holding their breath schools won’t close, the question is still up in the air. For others, the school year already has been ruined — a virtual option is not being offered, forcing them to withdraw.

But above all, schools must reopen safely but with consistency, and avoid a dizzying back and forth between open and close, said Stephanie Silvera, an infectious disease expert and professor at Montclair State University. She noted that New Jersey has higher vaccination rates than some of the Southern states seeing increases in pediatric hospitalizations.

“But the variant is still here. COVID is still here,” she said, “and we cannot let our guard down simply because we have more people vaccinated than a place like Louisiana.”

Third grade student Jaydin Silva listens during the first day of school at Livingston Elementary School in Union on Sept. 8, 2021.Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

‘We’re just kinda giving up’

Joanna Fried doesn’t feel like her kids are out of the woods yet.

Her 6-year-old daughter is entering first grade this year in Demarest, while her 3-and-a-half-year-old remains at home, after leaving his daycare in the spring of 2020.

Fried, her partner, and the kids moved from Brooklyn to the Bergen County town last year to be closer to her parents, who help with childcare and are elderly, and one of whom is immunocompromised. She thinks a virtual option should be available.

She’s worried her daughter could bring the virus home to her parents, and is disappointed families with kids have been left on their own to make crucial decisions.

“I feel like everybody’s kinda throwing up their hands and saying, ‘Well, we gotta get back to business,’” Fried said, “so we’re just kinda giving up.”

She wishes the district would at least continue the mitigation strategies from last year, but since every district is allowed to make their own decisions on COVID, Fried withdrew her daughter on Friday and will start homeschooling.

“We have been hoping for the governor to allow for a virtual option which is why we have held off on formally withdrawing,” Fried, a physician, said before officially withdrawing. “It’s disappointing that his administration has not responded to the advocacy around this issue.”

Karen Strauss, whose son attends school in the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional district, co-founded the group New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice. She also wants a virtual option, including for her 5-year-old son who has asthma and high-functioning autism.

Children learn differently, she said, and some kids have learned better online. And she thinks virtual learning methods could improve this year now that educators know more.

Families would also have the option — they could still choose in-person learning if they wanted.

Teachers wouldn’t have to remind as many kids to keep their masks on, and “it’s a lot easier to social distance when you don’t have as many kids in the classroom,” she said. “So if you take these kids out, right now for the moment, I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Dan Orlovsky said he is not even slightly concerned about his kids catching COVID. What he wants is a normal school year for his three daughters.

Last year’s online learning was detrimental to his third-grader academically, he said, calling it nowhere near an “acceptable level of education.”

Orlovsky sees the current conversations about schools as a “disconnect” between reality and the hypothetical. Plenty of people go in to work these days, and many kids participate in indoor activities, he said, but those aspects are left out of these discussions.

Jacqueline Davila Trezza, a fourth and fifth grade Dual Language Arts teacher, points out key safety measures to Principal John Rivero as she sets up her classroom as Dr. Michael Conti Public School prepares for the school year in Jersey City on Aug. 23, 2021.John Jones | For NJ Advance Media

An unrecognizable job

Will COVID wreck another school year? It depends on which educator you ask.

Students couldn’t complete their labs in person, and lacked motivation and enthusiasm for school in Erica Fox’s classroom, a high school science teacher in a South Jersey community.

She was given extra responsibilities: call the homes of truant students who were missing class. Create separate lesson plans for hybrid and remote students. Figure out how to constantly remain at her desk, so remote students wouldn’t be instructor-less.

“My district administration is wonderful,” Fox said, “and they’re the only reason I did not quit my job.”

This upcoming school year still feels precarious, she said. Her two young children attend school in a different district and last year, they were sometimes remote learning at home due to outbreaks when she had work, leaving her to scramble for childcare.

Her last few years of teaching were great, Fox said, but then the pandemic changed the dynamic. Gone were the days of hearing laughter in the hallways and chatting with students stopping by.

“All of a sudden the job completely turned into something, where if I read that job description in the newspaper, I would cross it off with marker,” she said. “Like I would never do that. So then all of a sudden our job has become something unrecognizable.”

Add regular parenting to the difficulties of virtually educating for more than a year, and you have overworked teachers trying their best to balance work and their own lives, but feeling worn out. At one point, Fox got a phone call from her son’s teacher: he was missing assignments.

Erin-Leigh Van Orden teaches kindergarten through seventh grade instrumental music in Orange. She said she got creative last year during remote learning — the kids learned bucket drumming routines — but also had extra work. She had to track down missing assignments, at one point reaching out to 80 students.

Van Orden also said she has to rebuild both her band and her drumline, as she won’t have any advanced students in either group this year. And although she is concerned about the spread of the virus, particularly with wind instruments, but prefers in-person learning, she is adamant this year will not be wrecked.

“Whatever happens, happens. I’m not going to let COVID ruin another school year,” she said.

As a parent of two boys with special needs, Van Orden said she also experienced the year as a mother and her sons did well with online learning. Her younger son followed his schedule independently and learned skills he wouldn’t have in person, she said.

“It won’t be a waste,” she said. “We just have to work together to make the best of it and keep everyone safe.”

Many school administrators also feel they’re in a better position to tackle COVID this year.

Despite having to start the school year off virtually due to flooding from Hurricane Ida, Paterson Schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer said the district believes it is well equipped to welcome students for in-person instruction — between mandated vaccinations or tests for employees, student vaccinations, and upgraded HVAC systems.

“We have 54 schools. If we start closing schools (due to COVID), that’s going to be detrimental,” she said. “Because it’ll be tough for parents to want to send their children back.”

Looking toward the fall and winter, Shafer said she also anticipates a spike in COVID cases closer to the holidays, as people gather with their families, which could be potentially problematic, but overall, she feels ready for the year.

Some students at Livingston Elementary School in Union get to eat outside during the first day of school on Sept. 8, 2021.Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

In Newark, Superintendent Roger León said consistency is crucial for students, but the city’s schools are able to adjust plans if needed. The district is also aware students are returning to school with possible learning loss, greater mental health needs, and other renewed challenges.

“The reality of any crisis is that you usually focus on the crisis and then everything else you get held accountable later,” León said. “We’re doing both and….with the realities at the moment.”

But not every district will most likely experience the same school year, potentially furthering existing inequity among students, experts say. Last year, some districts reopened for hybrid in the fall, while others only offered in-person instruction for a couple months.

With 686 individual districts in New Jersey, administrators have significant leeway in determining their reopening plans and mitigation strategies, while still abiding by the governor’s mandates.

Districts — or individual students who are forced to quarantine due to exposure — will likely return to remote learning some of the time, but the specifics may vary, said Jennifer Jennings, a sociology professor and director of the Education Research Section at Princeton University. Administrators’ choices and the rate of community spread both play a part.

The governor could still reduce potential inequities by tying aid to how schools reopen, whether it’s in-person or remote.

“They didn’t do so last year, but the Abbott districts, for example, are incredibly dependent on state aid,” Jennings said, “so I think the state has a lot more control in nudging policies in places like (Trenton) than in places like Princeton, where state aid is relatively low.”

She acknowledged those measures would most likely be quickly challenged in court, but the option for the governor remains. Murphy appoints both the education commissioner and state board, Jennings pointed out, so he retains influence over the system.

“And so he does have some options there that wouldn’t be possible in other states,” Jennings said.

Medical experts are cautiously optimistic, but are still concerned about the potential virus transmission for the hundreds of thousands of families and students now back in school. The state is better positioned for its reopening than other states with lower vaccination rates and lack of mask mandates, experts say, but keeping schools open will remain vexing obstacle for the months to come.

“I think New Jersey is positioned if we do the right things, and do it right, if you will, to have less (outbreaks) than other places,” Cennimo, the infectious disease expert at Rutgers, said. “You know, I think we can keep transmission down somewhat. But it’s going to be a challenge.”

If you are a parent, student or work in an N.J. school district, we’d like to hear your thoughts and concerns about schools and COVID-19 this year by filling out this form.

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Brianna Kudisch may be reached at bkudisch@njadvancemedia.com. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.

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