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South Jersey heads back to school, in-person, for 2021

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Schools around South Jersey will reopen to students over the next two weeks and school officials are eager to welcome students back, in-person, unlike last year when many public and charter districts began school remotely.

“I think we are more prepared and organized for what this coming school year will be,” said Philip Schaffer, principal of Wildwood Middle and High School. “We know a little bit more information regarding the pandemic. We know what worked and what didn’t work.”

The 1.3 million students in New Jersey’s 686 operating districts will return to their classrooms full time for the start of the 2021-2022 school year, as required by the state, with virtual or remote options only available for students who need to quarantine due to COVID-19.

Schaffer said planning for this school year was less challenging than in years past because guidance came sooner, and was more well-informed by last year’s experiences.

“I think collectively everybody is on board with knowing what worked and what didn’t work, as well as the understanding that kids need to be in the building,” Schaffer said. “I think we’re in a good position to move forward.”

Administrators around the region said they are doing all they can to ensure a safe learning environment for the students, while also keeping students in the classroom.

To that end, New Jersey schools and the Department of Education have received about $5 billion in federal COVID-19 relief aid to purchase supplies, implement programs and hire more staff. In its fiscal year 2022 budget, the state has also allocated $9.3 billion in direct aid to schools, increased formula aid by $578 million to districts, and increase special education aid nearly 50% in the 2022 budget to $400 million.

In Millville, Superintendent Tony Trongone said to mitigate the possibility of a COVID outbreak, he has used federal emergency aid to hire 15 more elementary teachers to be able to reduce class size.

“We’re still in the midst of a pandemic and when I’m posed with a problem, I always create an essential question,” Trongone said. “‘What will I need to do to keep kids in school and maintain in-person learning and at the same time keep them safe?’”

The same as last year, students, staff and visitors will all be masked in response to the recent spike in positive COVID-19 cases in the state. Despite the governor’s executive order, parents around the state and some districts are rallying to either unmask students or let the masking decision be made on a local level.

Trongone said it was unfortunate that districts are being put in the middle of a political battle since they have little say after the governor issues a mandate.

“Everyone has a personal view,” Trongone said. “Last year, there was a level of the unknown, whatever it took to get kids in school. Now that people’s opinions and values have become entrenched in a position, that’s going to play into the school environment now.”

He said because of that, he fears that parents may keep their kids out of school, further impacting learning loss.

“As educators we’re pleasers. We want to help everybody. We try to accommodate everybody, but then you only have so much capacity to accommodate everybody’s needs,” he said.

Outside of the COVID-19 pandemic, many districts have moved forward with renovations, new educational programs and activities for students in the 2021-22 school year.

Brigantine Superintendent and Principal Glenn Robbins said the district has been busy with several projects over the summer for the new school year. Several renovations have been done, including beginning deconstruction of the former elementary library, which will be transformed into a new learning center. Robbins said the school is also creating an esports arena and an outdoor pavilion.

In Somers Point, the district underwent a rebranding of its schools as the Jaguars. Superintendent Michelle CarneyRay-Yoder said the upcoming school year will have a “rigorous focus” on academics and social emotional learning.

“The district will address unfinished learning and set students on a path to academic success. Back to School Nights will be held early in September in order to welcome back our families and share the new framework for instruction and other exciting opportunities that students will have the chance to engage in during the year,” CarneyRay-Yoder said.

Buena Superintendent David Cappuccio said his district is beginning work approved in last spring’s $31 million bond referendum, and introducing a new schedule at the middle school that will include project-based learning courses.

“These courses are designed to actively engage students in deeper learning and inspire a personal connection to problem-solving, logic and reasoning. The courses will incorporate skills from science, math, English/language arts, and world languages,” Cappuccio said.

At the high school, several new courses will be added including AP Statistics, Intro to Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources and Intro to Flight. In addition, the high school has a new principal, Christina Collazo-Franco, and a new athletic director and vice principal, Mark Prince.

Wildwood Middle and High School also has a new assistant principal and athletic director, Steven Lerch.

“He has been a teacher in our district for 10 years, a middle school basketball coach, and most recently named Governors Educator of the Year,” Schaffer said.

Wildwood will implement a staff and student advisory program focused on adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, for middle and high school students, with the aim to increase academic success and build strong student and teacher relationships.

In Pleasantville, Superintendent Natakie Chestnut-Lee said Leeds Avenue School first-grade teacher Syreeta Primas was one of 18 teachers in the state selected to participate in a Teacher Leader certification program.

In addition, Chestnut-Lee said the district is offering a new after-school program to “close the opportunity gap.”

Beginning in September, the high school will be open from 4-8 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, and 4-9 p.m. on Friday for students.

“A few of the program highlights consist of a dinner program, swim lessons, mentoring, open swim, tutoring, STEAM, mental health counseling, yoga, Thai Chi, basketball, parent workshops, and financial literacy,” Chestnut-Lee said. “Our district is committed to breaking down barriers that stand between our school community and access to equitable resources.”

Galloway Township Superintendent Annette Giaquinto said the district is implementing several new programs including a new reading program for elementary and middle school students next year, upgrading classroom technology, and is excited to welcome the return of elementary school recess, which was canceled last year due to COVID-19.

In addition, fall sports and clubs are returning to the middle school, Giaquinto said.

Contact Claire Lowe: 609-272-7251

Twitter @clairelowe

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Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. After seven years at The Current and Gazette newspapers, I joined The Press in 2015. I currently cover education.

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