ELMER, N.J. — On the school campus of Creativity CoLaboratory Charter School at Appel Farm, final preparations are underway for the return of students in just a few short weeks.
“It's so great to be back,” said principal George Farmer. “We are looking forward to a very successful school year.”
The school, known as “C3” is located in Elmer, New Jersey. It’s a campus with nearly 200 students in grades fifth through eighth. We first visited the school in the early spring, when COVID-19 vaccines were not as widely available as they are now.
“There were a lot of protocols that were in place that were successful,” Farmer said. “So, what we did was we adopted those same protocols from last year into this year.”
Those protocols include limiting class sizes to 12 students and placing air filtration systems in each classroom. They are now also setting up outside tents for occasional outside classes and there is a state-ordered mask mandate.
“We will comply with that mandate,” Farmer said. “And whether students are vaccinated or unvaccinated, all our students will be required to wear a mask this school year.”
For parents trying to navigate sending their kids back to school during yet another year of COVID-19, the rules around the country are all over the map, literally.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends masks for students nationwide, there is no federal mandate.
For example, in Florida and Texas, governors there have banned mask mandates, though some individual school districts are defying that order and the ban in Texas has been temporarily put on hold because of pending litigation.
Colorado and Michigan are recommending masks in schools, but not requiring them.
In California – like New Jersey – masks are mandated in all schools.
“We are in year three of pandemic education, and yet we still have not figured out how to be more nimble in responding to the needs of our students, to the needs of our families, and to the needs of our educators who are working so vigilantly in the field,” said Annette Campbell Anderson, a former educator who is now with the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools.
The center has been tracking school reopenings and COVID-19 protocols across the country.
“So far, what it seems like our schools have learned is that we can either be open fully or we can be closed fully,” Campbell Anderson said. “We don't have anything in the gray area in-between, and we need to work on developing backup plans.”
She said that means it will be up to parents to get more involved to find out what happens if a student in their child’s class tests positive for coronavirus, and be prepared to have their own backup plans to deal with it.
“They should find out what the plan is for students in those classrooms. But you also need to ask about the spaces like the hallways, the stairwells, the cafeteria spaces that are not typically monitored by teachers,” she said. “We don't know where the pandemic is going to lead us in the next three to six months. So, we have to be prepared for that.”
Back at C3 in New Jersey, principal George Farmer said they have their plans in place, including quarantining a class and moving it to remote learning if there is a COVID-19 case.
“Educators are vitally important. We see that now more than ever,” Farmer said. “I think that that's critical for our students to be able to be in person with their teacher, but also be safe at the same time.”