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A Camden school reflects on a full year with mandatory masks: ‘We’re used to it’

The Camden school system will end the school year with a mask requirement still in place for all students and staff.

Art teacher Jamila Roy with students at Yorkship Elementary School in Camden.
Art teacher Jamila Roy with students at Yorkship Elementary School in Camden.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

First grader Khamoni Davis-Victor kept her face mask tucked under her chin as she munched on lunch Wednesday in the cafeteria at Yorkship Elementary School in Camden.

As soon as the 7-year-old finished her favorite lunch — tacos — she pulled up her mask to cover her mouth and nose. She said she understood why her school district has a mask mandate.

”The virus is spreading,” she said matter-of-factly. “I don’t know who made the coronavirus, but I know whoever did it will get in big trouble.”

The Camden school system, which enrolls about 5,100 students in its 15 traditional public schools, will wrap up the 2021-22 school year in two weeks with a mask requirement still in place for all students and teachers.

Camden is believed to be the only South Jersey district that kept the mask rule in place after Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the state requirement in March. Newark, the state’s largest school system, also kept the mask mandate, while Trenton reinstated it last week.

Murphy has said that school districts, particularly in high-transmission areas, have ”every right” to require masks. Most made mask-wearing optional, letting students and staff decide whether to wear them.

Camden Superintendent Katrina T. McCombs initially took a wait-and-see approach, keeping tabs on coronavirus cases. She later decided to keep the mask mandate for the remainder of the school year and for summer school, which starts July 5.

“With reported positive COVID-19 cases on the rise, I am so glad that here at the Camden City School District, we made the right decision to stay the course and continue masking,” McCombs said in a statement. “Our top priority is always to keep our students safe so we will continue to put them first in our decision-making.”

Some districts in the region, including Philadelphia, went back to universal masking in schools and on buses in May when cases began rising again. A handful of other suburban districts, including Cheltenham and Upper Dublin, also began requiring students to mask after months of mask-optional classes.

In Camden, it was business as usual Wednesday at Yorkship Elementary, in the city’s Fairview neighborhood. Most students arrive with their own masks, but the school has them available if needed, Principal Lana Murray said.

”We’re used to it. We’ve been wearing them,” Murray said. “We have not had a lot of pushback at all.”

Murray said students, which include preschoolers, remind each other to put on a mask or pull it up if it slips down. There are signs posted around the school, including one with a cartoon character that says, “Superheroes wear masks.”

“They want to be safe,” Murray said.

Teacher Adrian Nelson escorted about 10 preschoolers outside to a play yard where they excitedly climbed on recreational equipment and rode around on scooters and bicycles. Because they were in close contact and not able to social distance, they remained masked.

”The students are adjusting well,” Nelson said. “They follow it.”

At one point, Adalia Garcia, 5, needed a mask break. So she walked away from her play group and stood alone with her mask off. A few minutes later, she rejoined the group.

Murray said students are encouraged to take mask breaks as needed. In the classroom, they are permitted to go into a corner away from other students and pull down their mask, she said.

“Everybody hates it. It’s hard because it’s uncomfortable,” said Jayonna Freeman, a third grader. “But I like how it is keeping us from the COVID.”

Denzel White, 9, said he understands why his parents remind him daily to “wear your mask, make sure you stay safe at school.”

“You get to stay safe from sick people,” said White, a third grader.

Technology teacher Suzanne Dorrell, who was teaching a lesson on coding robotics, said teaching with a mask on is difficult because students can’t see her facial expressions.

“I don’t like the masks,” she said. “It is a challenge.”

In the cafeteria, Khamoni and her first-grade classmates took off their masks for lunch — tacos or pizza, an apple and chocolate milk. Then they lined up to go outside for recess.

”Mask up. Everyone should have their mask on,” Lidia Carrero, the school’s operations coordinator, told them before their departure.