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In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, school sporting events have been postponed, fans banned, school plays and class trips canceled, and outsiders told to stay off school campuses.

Meanwhile, behind closed doors, schools in the area are getting prepared in case they must make a nearly unprecedented health-related closing in the coming days.

“I’ve been at this 21 years. I personally have not seen anything that has reached this level,” said Dina Rossi, superintendent of the Cumberland County Technical Education Center. “Have we prepared for pandemic response? Absolutely. Ten years ago with H1N1 (swine flu), we prepared, but it did not get to this level.”

COVID-19 has superintendents around the state readying for a possible shutdown of schools with plans for home instruction and food service, and keeping caregivers up to date with the latest information.

Although there have been no confirmed cases in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland or southern Ocean counties, Atlantic City Superintendent Barry Caldwell said they are preparing for the worst-case scenario, monitoring updates from the county and state health and education officials.

The district late Thursday also scheduled an emergency teacher in-service day Friday, closing schools to students. An in-service day already had been scheduled for Monday.

“It’s a fluid plan because there are so many moving parts and variables,” Caldwell said.

Those plans and updates are being communicated to parents via email, social media and through district websites. Any announcements on closings will be communicated in the same way, school officials around the region said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

According to guidance issued last week by the New Jersey Department of Education, the Department of Health may issue a written directive to close schools as a means to contain the virus. If that happens, a school board can use home instruction to meet the 180-day school year requirement.

“Closures made absent a written directive from either the NJDOH or the health officer of the jurisdiction will not count,” the guidance states.

Districts were directed this month to develop a health-related closing preparedness plan that should include “equitable access to instruction for all students,” including “appropriate special education and related services for students with disabilities and the provision of school nutrition benefits or services for eligible students.”

Districts like Egg Harbor Township and Atlantic City are using previously scheduled professional development days or, in the case of Hamilton Township and Buena Regional, scheduling emergency days for Friday or early next week to develop plans to educate students from home.

Rossi, president of Cumberland County’s Association of School Administrators, said all county superintendents met last week to come up with a cohesive plan. Atlantic and Cape May county school administrators said they have also been meeting to discuss closing plans.

“For some of us, it’s going to be old-school packets of information. For some of us, it will be on a tech platform, and for some of us a combination of both depending on the age level and availability of resources,” Rossi said.

All Cumberland County schools have also canceled all field trips out of state and international.

Schools were also instructed by the DOE to adopt increased cleanliness and disinfection protocols.

Atlantic Christian School Chief School Administrator Karen M. Oblen said there will be a deep sterilization of all classrooms Friday at the Egg Harbor Township school.

In Wildwood, there is a similar response.

“Our facilities team has met to create an aggressive cleaning protocol, and we have also invested in additional equipment as an added measure. We will be performing a detailed cleaning this weekend,” Wildwood Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings said.

Several parents expressed concern about the effect of school closings on parents with young children who are unable to take time off work.

Michele Rose, of Somers Point, said she isn’t too concerned about COVID-19, but she is concerned about missing work if schools decide to close due to the pandemic.

“I am a single mom of three,” said Rose. “I have rent, water, gas, electric, car insurance, car payment, food, household needs. I barely make it now. I don’t know how I will survive if my kids are home and I can’t go to work.”

Upper Township resident Bill Kelly said he will likely have to bring his daughter to work with him if they close schools there.

“No one can afford to stay home with their kid,” said Kelly, who manages several stores in Ocean View. “And then who is supposed to teach them the school curriculum?”

School officials said they understand caregivers’ concerns, but offering childcare is not possible.

“Unfortunately, there is not the capacity to put a plan in place for child care. Such a plan would contradict the requirements for social distancing and self-quarantining, which would be a primary reason for school closure,” said Janet Gangemi, superintendent of Tuckerton Elementary School.

Food service is another issue schools are tackling. Rossi said CCTEC will open its doors during breakfast and lunch for any student in the county.

“I’m not going to turn away kids if they are not in my school,” she said.

Kummings said because of the high percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price meals, finding a way to feed students was a particular concern.

“When we are closed, 950 students lose the ability to have breakfast and lunch at school, and 30% of them miss dinner via our 21st Century afterschool program,” Kummings said. “Chartwells, our food service provider, has a comprehensive plan to make food available in the event of a closure, and has already increased their supply of shelf stable items in order to feed our students in the event of a closure.”

Catholic Schools Superintendent Bill Watson said the Camden Diocese is prepared “to do whatever we need to do for the common good.”

“Today, that means business as usual, with the precautionary actions already recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services,” Watson said. “At the same time, we are taking measures to ensure our schools are prepared should they need to conduct remote education. We are blessed with a level of excellence among our principals and teachers that enables us to move forward in a spirit of unity, clarity and flexibility.”

Contact: 609-272-7251

CLowe@pressofac.com

Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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