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

The Collingswood school district used stimulus funds to hold a two-week camp this year to get students ready to return to school full-time.

Instructional aide Natalie Dick (left, back) and English teacher Crista Green cheer on students during an "Energy Circle" exercise at Summer Acceleration Camp at Collingswood Middle/High School in Collingswood, N.J., Aug. 16, 2021.
Instructional aide Natalie Dick (left, back) and English teacher Crista Green cheer on students during an "Energy Circle" exercise at Summer Acceleration Camp at Collingswood Middle/High School in Collingswood, N.J., Aug. 16, 2021.Read moreAVI STEINHARDT

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 with 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 school 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.

» READ MORE: Billions of stimulus dollars are coming to Pa. and N.J. schools to help get them open again

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.

» READ MORE: COVID-19 has upended education. How will schools solve for learning loss

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.

Inside the middle school, teacher Tim Serabian patiently showed a group of sixth graders how to use their lockers. After several attempts, Phair Jackmon, 11, mastered opening a locker but expressed concerns about navigating the hallways between classes.

“It’s just some things I’m worried about,” Phair admitted. “I feel like it’s going to be a lot harder.”

Hoskins worries about the possible threat the delta variant poses. He was remote last year and he 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.”