It was almost a typical first day of school for second grader Sofia Veksland. She posed for pictures to mark the annual rite of passage and her mother drove her to school.
But it was no ordinary day for the 8-year-old and thousands of other Cherry Hill students who returned to their classrooms Tuesday for the first time since schools were abruptly shut down in March because of the coronavirus.
“I was really happy that I had the opportunity to get in the school,” Sofia said. “It was very fun.”
Cherry Hill opened as schools across the region are carefully monitoring rising COVID-19 numbers and grappling with whether to stay open or shift to virtual learning to help contain the spread of the virus. Some have already decided to close, while others are moving ahead with plans to bring students back for several days a week.
One of the largest districts, Cherry Hill delayed opening for in-person learning several times, much to the consternation of some parents and students. The last time was earlier this month after three dozen students tested positive for COVID-19.
Like many districts, Cherry Hill began the school year remotely for its 11,000 students after teachers and parents raised health concerns. In Deptford, the entire district also reported Tuesday for the first time since last spring.
Some Cherry Hill students will report to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and others on Wednesdays and Fridays. Monday is a remote-learning day for all students.
Superintendent Joseph Meloche said about half of Cherry Hill students opted for the hybrid model. Parents concerned about the health and safety of their children can choose fully remote learning.
Joy Thomas, 17, a senior at Cherry Hill East, who is learning virtually, said she misses her friends but believes schools should have remained closed, especially after three teachers at her school tested positive this week. Meloche said there have been 11 positive cases and 24 employees are in quarantine.
“I miss just walking the hallways with my friends,” Thomas said. “It’s unfair that my class has to do our senior year this way.”
During a virtual town hall meeting Monday, Meloche asked for patience as students and teachers adjust. He said about one-fourth of the students assigned to a school will be present at any given time.
“There is absolutely going to be a learning curve,” Meloche said. “But we’re going to get through it.”
Asked about wearing a mask in school, Sofia replied: “Not fun. Six whole hours.” She also missed having snacks readily at hand to munch during remote classes at home.
Sofia’s mother, Jessica Gomel-Veksland, said she struggled with the decision to send her to school. She was relieved to learn that Sofia was in a class with three students at James Johnson Elementary and rode the bus home with one other student.
“Did I make the right decision? I feel like I did,” she said. However, she plans to switch to remote learning after Thanksgiving.
The opening Tuesday drew mixed reactions from parents in a Cherry Hill Facebook group. Some said they were relieved to have their children in school, but others were unsure about the timing of the return.
“I hope I am so wrong about this, but just fear a bad outcome,” wrote Matthew Archambeault, who has a 9-year-old son. “This just seems reckless.”
Cherry Hill is among roughly 550 traditional public, charter, and renaissance schools in New Jersey that have hybrid learning models, according to the state Department of Education. About 127 districts provide in-person only instruction and about 100 are fully remote.
After the recent increase in coronavirus cases, a number of districts in South Jersey have switched to virtual learning only, and more could follow if the trend continues.
In a letter to parents Monday, Deptford School Superintendent Arthur E. Dietz warned that the district could shift to remote learning with little notice. In the last week, five staff members tested positive, and five more were already in quarantine, he said.
“The longer we remain open, the more likely the number of cases in the district will continue rising,” Dietz wrote. “At some point, it is possible we may have too many staff members out, and will be unable to operate in-person classes.”