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How a South Jersey district is preparing students to return after pandemic hiatus

How a South Jersey district is preparing students to return after pandemic hiatus

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After more than a year of remote learning, 14-year-old Alexander Perez has some angst about returning to school in September.

The Collingswood High School sophomore isn’t alone. The new school year will mark the first time that thousands of students across the region and country are stepping into classrooms again after the pandemic forced schools to abruptly shut down in the spring of 2020.

Collingswood and other districts have been holding boot camps and other activities to ready students by focusing on their social and emotional needs. Students are reestablishing relationships with their teachers and peers and getting reacclimated to the daily in-person school routine.

“We’re trying to connect people,” said Dan Whelan, an environmental teacher at Collingswood High who helped coordinate an eight-day camp. “We want them to be comfortable being here.”

About 100 students in sixth through 10th grades are participating in the second week of a free camp-like program at the sprawling Collingswood campus for middle and high school. The South Jersey district has a similar program for younger students at two elementary schools.

Martina Svekla, 11, said her parents signed her up for both weeks of camp and she was pleasantly surprised.

“At first, I thought it would be schoolwork,” said Martina, a sixth grader. “It ended up being really fun.”

Each day begins with a morning meeting and breakfast, followed by three hours of activities such as a scavenger hunt, solar car building, yoga, baseball, soccer, arts and crafts, and board games. There are also therapy dogs and a circus and wildlife animal presentation.

“I love it there,” said sixth grader Tyler Campbell, 11, who was excited to make a new best friend at camp. “I feel like it will prepare me for middle school.”

Collingswood used stimulus funds earmarked by the federal government to help districts mitigate the damage caused by the pandemic and get students back in the classroom. Besides a disruption to learning and teaching, experts say some students suffered emotionally and socially from the isolation with remote instruction.

Like many districts, Collingswood began the 2020-21 school year virtually and gradually phased in a hybrid model with some students returning to in-person learning, and others remaining remote because of health and safety concerns.

History teacher Eric Fieldman, one of about 20 teachers and student peer leaders who volunteered for the camp, said the transition was also needed for educators to prepare for the school year. Most of his students chose remote learning last year.

“Being with them has been so exciting, after a year and a half of Zoom,” said Fieldman.

Perez spent his entire freshman year learning remotely. He came to camp to learn his way around the building. He also made some new friends in a group that gathered under a pine tree playing marathon rounds of the card game UNO.

“I was nervous about not knowing where to go,” Perez said.

The students are divided into small groups for team-building activities in keeping with the theme “connection over everything.” Each team selects its name. The upperclassmen, the oldest students, called themselves “The Elders.”

Perez and the Elders were content to play UNO for hours. Most of the group members knew one another but embraced newcomers Robert Hoskins and Jaiden Watkins, both 14 and incoming freshmen.

UNO’s “all we do,” said Kellen Maneely, 15, a sophomore. The group wants to add an UNO tournament next year, he said.

Whelan said the camp, which ended Thursday, was loosely structured to give students options to best suit their interests. Some gathered on a playing field, chatting and relaxing on blankets. Others walked around the track or played baseball.

There were also two classes that focused on STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — with light team activities. Students in groups did a dinosaur tooth exploration and used kits to build miniature solar cars.

Hoskins worries about the possible threat the delta variant poses. He was remote last year and didn’t think schools should be in person this year.

The delta variant is “more effective on the younger ones,” said Hoskins.

To help cope with stress, the students had yoga sessions in the library. They learned how to stretch and take deep breaths, techniques that school officials hope they will use in the new school year.

“The game changed during the pandemic,” said Natalie Dick, an instructional assistant. “That anxiety went through the roof.”

Inside Kelly Espinoza’s classroom, a handful of kindergartners painstakingly threaded colorful plastic beads onto pipe cleaners, counting each as their teacher called out encouragement, moving from desk to desk.

“Angel, you have 17! That’s so many, buddy,” said Espinoza, a teacher at Musselman Learning Center in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

COVID-19 caused widespread disruption last school year, moving millions of children’s education online for all or part of the year. It also meant thousands of parents unable to navigate child care, work and the rigors of remote school did not or could not enroll their children in early childhood programs last year. Kindergarten, which is not compulsory in New Jersey, was particularly affected.

This year, many schools will cope with the consequences.

“We’ve all got a lot of work to do,” said A. Brooks Bowden, assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

It’s too soon to say whether kindergarten enrollment will bounce back fully for this school year, or whether the delta variant will keep students away from school buildings again. But on the first day the district opened registration for a summer “kindergarten boot camp” to prep students for the coming school year, 48 families whose children had never been to preschool registered, said Tracy Richardson, Norristown’s director of teaching and learning.

It’s difficult to tell how many of those children would have enrolled in preschool programs last year if not for the pandemic, but Richardson said the district was eager to use $38,000 in federal COVID-19 recovery funds to give 100 students a leg up.

Students worked on academic basics in the Norristown program — recognizing letters, writing their names, counting — but also on social and emotional skills, on learning how to walk down the hallway, use a public bathroom, raise their hands and interact with other children.

“Because of the pandemic, a lot of kids haven’t been able to spend time with peers their own age,” said Christi Fox, a Norristown kindergarten teacher.

New Jersey saw a 9% drop in kindergarten enrollment statewide, and an analysis by the Education Law Center shows many students also missed out on prekindergarten programs, especially districts where large numbers of students live in poverty. Statewide, enrollment dropped by 11% for 4-year-olds in the neediest districts in 2020, and by 34% for 3-year-olds, according to an analysis by the nonprofit.

That troubles Danielle Farrie, research director at the Education Law Center.

“Far too many youngsters missed out on the educational and social-emotional benefits of preschool and kindergarten last year,” said Farrie. “Now, the state must make certain districts have the resources and supports needed to give these children one-to-one attention and accelerate their cognitive and emotional growth.”

Last year, Camden had seats available for 2,465 3- and 4-year-olds at district and private programs, said Superintendent Katrina McCombs. Only 1,433 preschoolers enrolled, she said. Prior to the pandemic, Camden had 2,300 preschoolers.

McCombs attributed the decline to the pandemic and said many parents were uncomfortable with virtual learning for youngsters or don’t see the need for preschool. Camden, like other economically distressed New Jersey districts, offers free universal preschool.

“Some families just found it to be very challenging,” McCombs said. Camden’s kindergarten enrollment for the coming year has improved, the superintendent said, with about 631 students enrolled so far. Enrollment dropped last year to 485 kindergartners, compared with about 586 before the pandemic.

A former kindergarten teacher, McCombs said early childhood education is crucial to leveling the playing field by promoting school readiness.

“I see it in cities like Camden as an opportunity for kids to get a strong start in education,” she said. “It’s not mandated, but I think it should be.”

At the Acelero Learning Academy in East Camden, a private provider that operates five Head Start sites in the city, preschoolers wrapped up a summer school readiness program this week.

“It’s the best gift we can give our children,” said Reina Albino, the center’s Head Start director.

In one classroom, lead teacher Rachel Hynes and two assistants led story time, an exercise session, and played alphabet bingo to help three girls, all age 4, pick out letters.

“F is for frog,” Hynes said, pointing to a card as the group sat at a small table.

“I don’t like frogs,” responded Geishaliz Lopez-Ostolaza, drawing laughter.

Summer programs can help, but teachers are bracing for a year of making up ground. Jamie Gillespie, a Norristown first-grade teacher, has been spending the summer planning for what’s to come.

The early school years are crucial for myriad reasons, from mastering which way you hold a book and which way text moves to learning group rules and how many paper towels to grab after you wash your hands. Kindergarten is often when educators begin to pick up on potential learning differences.

“We do expect there to be a gap, different from the normal summer gap,” said Gillespie, who also taught in the kindergarten enrichment program at Musselman. But the speed with which her summer charges, none of whom had been to preschool, picked up new skills and the excitement they felt to be in school gave her confidence.

Norristown said that after just a few days, kindergartners in the program had made real strides, both socially and academically.

“As teachers, we have to remember that kids did gain skills, just in different areas,” said Gillespie. “We’re going to have to differentiate our classes accordingly.”

Bowden is also the parent of two children in the Philadelphia School District, so she had a front-row seat to the triumphs and challenges of the last pandemic school year.

“In my son’s first-grade class, it was one teacher with 28 kids,” said Bowden. “That to me sounds really difficult when some of the schools will have a large chunk of kids who haven’t been to school.”

Much of the billions in federal COVID-19 relief money flowing into schools will be targeted to compensate for pandemic learning gaps. Bowden thinks educator coaches, tutoring services and supports for families can go a long way, she said.

Christopher Dormer, Norristown superintendent, said district data show students who attended regularly typically made grade-level progress last school year, but attendance-challenged children will have a ways to go. The district is planning three or four days of free tutoring to keep students moving forward.

“To me, it’s not about dumbing down the curriculum or saying, ‘We didn’t cover this, we’re going to take steps backward,’ it’s about meeting kids where they’re at,” said Dormer.

Many districts report increased kindergarten demand this year, despite the continued presence of COVID-19.

The Cinnaminson school district expects to reach capacity for its first full-day kindergarten program with about 190 students, said Superintendent Stephen Cappello.

“We’re growing day by day,” Cappello said.

Cinnaminson hired four additional kindergarten teachers and assistants and set up portable classrooms outside the New Albany School to house the expanded program, he said. (Cinnaminson actually saw a slight increase in kindergartners last year, with 160 children enrolled in 2020-21 and 153 the year prior.)

And while some parents say kids kept out of school last year will be playing catch-up, others say the year away was actually good for them.

Brittny Phelps has no regrets about teaching her son Reed, 6, at home for kindergarten rather than enrolling him in public schools in Mantua, Gloucester County. Both Phelps and Reed’s grandmother, a retired kindergarten teacher, helped keep the boy on track.

“He’s reading, writing and spelling,” said Phelps, a hair stylist. “He is so good at math that he gets bored. He breezes right through it.”

Phelps said Reed is ready for first grade and will attend public school. He attended preschool full time, so that should make his transition easier, she said.

“He’s very excited to go back to school and make friends and be with other kids,” Phelps said.

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