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More area schools shifting to virtual learning amid surge in COVID-19 cases

“The risk is getting too high,” Haddonfield School Superintendent Charles Klaus says on the decision to shift to remote learning at Haddonfield High.

A sign outside Haddonfield Memorial High School. The Board of Education announced Sunday that students would shift fully to virtual learning until at least Nov. 30, as the region braces for record counts of the coronavirus and the likelihood of new restrictions as officials attempt to slow the virus’ spread.
A sign outside Haddonfield Memorial High School. The Board of Education announced Sunday that students would shift fully to virtual learning until at least Nov. 30, as the region braces for record counts of the coronavirus and the likelihood of new restrictions as officials attempt to slow the virus’ spread.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Haddonfield School Superintendent Charles Klaus began sounding the alarm last week that he was close to shutting down the district’s high school because of the rising number of positive COVID-19 cases.

By Sunday, the numbers had worsened — two more confirmed cases, and as many as five pending. Klaus made the call to shift the school’s nearly 900 students to virtual learning for two weeks, starting Monday.

“These decisions are hard,” Klaus said. “The risk is getting too high. Ultimately, we want everyone to be safe and healthy.”

Across the region, school officials are grappling with whether to take similar action in the wake of a spike in coronavirus cases — New Jersey reported 2,232 cases last weekend; in Philadelphia, the city’s seven-day average last week reached as high as 751 new cases per day, up from less than 100 two months ago, city data show.

The mounting COVID-19 cases prompted new restrictions announced Monday. New Jersey is prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people indoors and 100 outdoors, and Philadelphia is closing indoor dining, gyms, and museums until Jan. 1.

» READ MORE: High school sports forced into waiting game due to new COVID-19 restrictions

Some districts including Philadelphia, Camden, and Voorhees have already decided to remain virtual until at least early 2021.

Others, including the Central Bucks and Council Rock school districts, are scrapping hybrid models and instead will offer all in-person or all virtual learning. Cherry Hill plans to follow through with plans to return students to schools Tuesday for the first time this year.

“The weight on a superintendent is so heavy,” said Camden Schools Chief Katrina McCombs. “It’s all resting on you as the leader.”

The biggest impact in South Jersey has been in Camden County, where there have been at least nine outbreaks confirmed in schools that were linked to 54 cases, according to the state Department of Health. That is the most school-related cases in New Jersey’s 21 counties.

“The numbers continue to go the wrong way,” said Dan Keashen, a Camden County spokesperson. Experts believe the increase is linked to social gatherings outside of school, he said. There has also been an increase in the spread of community cases.

Barring an order by Gov. Phil Murphy, the decision on whether to shut down schools is left to local districts, in consultation with health officials. Parents have the option of remote-only instruction for their children.

In Pennsylvania, the Montgomery County Board of Health on Friday ordered all K-12 schools in the county to revert to virtual instruction from Nov. 23 through Dec. 6. Some schools won’t wait until next week. The Lower Merion School District is switching to all virtual instruction Tuesday, due to rapidly increasing cases of the coronavirus, including among students and staff.

“Based on the information we are receiving, we can no longer say with certainty that we are not experiencing school-based transmission … of COVID-19 in our schools,” Superintendent Robert Copeland said in a message to parents Monday.

Other Camden County districts have shifted schools or the entire district to remote learning. The growing list includes Berlin Borough, Berlin Township, Brooklawn, Collingswood, Gibbsboro, LEAP Academy Charter in Camden, Lindenwold, Pennsauken, and Waterford schools.

Due to mandatory staff quarantines, Collingswood High School switched to virtual learning this week, said Superintendent Scott Oswald. The school has only had a few positive COVID-19 cases, he said.

“Sadly, even one case can trigger extensive quarantines,” he wrote to parents.

The Voorhees School District announced Monday it plans to move to remote learning through Jan. 4. Eastern Regional High in Voorhees also switched to virtual instruction after multiple confirmed cases, Superintendent Robert Cloutier said in a letter to parents. A dozen staff members and 67 students are in quarantine, and at least five more possible cases are under investigation, he said.

Camden’s five Catholic Partnership Schools also shifted to fully remote learning until Jan. 4 after several cases and exposures, officials said. Students had been attending virtual and in-person classes. Schools operated by the Diocese of Camden remain open, a spokesperson said.

In Gloucester County, the Birches and Wedgwood Elementary Schools and Orchard Valley Middle School in Washington Township are remote until Nov. 30, Jan Giel, a spokesperson, said Monday. Kingsway Regional High school in Woolwich Township also shifted to remote learning through Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, some districts like Cherry Hill are proceeding with plans to shift to hybrid models that include in-person learning for the first time this school year. Students are scheduled to begin reporting to their schools Tuesday.

Cherry Hill parents were expected to extend a virtual town hall Monday night to share any concerns and ask questions about the decision to open schools. The district enrolls about 11,000 students.

The uncertainty about whether schools should be kept open has renewed angst for school leaders as well as teachers, parents, and students concerned about their health and safety. Some parents have expressed a reluctance in social media posts to send their students into buildings.

Klaus said about 50 students at Haddonfield High school last week withdrew from in-person classes and opted for online instruction. At least 14 teachers are under quarantine or working remotely, which could have created a shortage of teachers for in-person instruction, he said.

Haddonfield’s elementary and middle schools remain open. Neither has had a positive case in at least six weeks, according to Klaus.

During a school board meeting on Thursday, teacher Jessica Fingerman said Haddonfield teachers were increasingly teaching to nearly empty classrooms at the high school. Students were attending a mix of in-person and remote classes.

“Teachers are worried about their health and what they may be bringing home to their loved ones,” Fingerman said. “They feel they are putting themselves in harm’s way when they are only teaching one, two, or three students in person.”

Staff writer Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.