With COVID-19 numbers rising stubbornly in the region — and more dramatically in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the nation — the virus continues to cast an ominous shadow over the 2020-21 school year, with administrators confronting unprecedented challenges.
“It’s like we’re planning in quicksand,” said Katrina McCombs, superintendent of the Camden City School District, who announced Monday that a third of the teachers in the 15,000-pupil district might not return to classrooms in September because of coronavirus fears.
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In Pennsylvania, where the seven-day average of daily confirmed cases — 871 — has more than doubled since mid-June, bumped up by outbreaks in the Pittsburgh area, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said he would sue the Trump administration if it attempted to withhold federal funds from schools that don’t reopen fully.
While they haven’t rivaled levels in Western Pennsylvania, reported case numbers have inched up in Philadelphia, with the daily average as of Tuesday for the previous seven days at 138, up from 110 the week before. While the rises are not large, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said they might affect the progress of reopenings. Farley said he also was concerned about numbers spiking around the country.
And President Donald Trump, who previously had downplayed the pandemic’s potential, said the numbers are likely to get worse before they improve.
Concerned about those national numbers, and what’s going on in neighboring Delaware, New Jersey now is requiring individuals traveling from the Diamond State and 30 others to quarantine for a 14-day period after they arrive in the Garden State.
With 10 states added Tuesday and the removal of Minnesota, the list now consists of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Those arriving from those states are asked to self-quarantine in a home, hotel, or other lodging, leaving only for essential errands for food or other items, or to seek medical care. They also are advised to get tested. Enforcement, however, primarily will be a matter of “personal responsibility.”
New Jersey’s overall case numbers have been declining, and Gov. Phil Murphy has approved the resumption of practices for sports such as wrestling and football, but with proper safety protocols.
Gyms in New Jersey are limited to individual training sessions in separate rooms, with unrestricted public use prohibited. The state sought to have the Atilis Gym in Bellmawr held in contempt for violating state guidelines.
While Superior Court didn’t issue a contempt citation, it did hold that the gym owners had to comply with rules and said the state could seek another contempt order if they didn’t.
While the trends in New Jersey case numbers have been encouraging, the course of the 2020-21 school year appeared to be about as unpredictable as that of the virus itself.
In the Camden district, fears of the virus could lead to high absenteeism among teachers, Superintendent McCombs warned. Asked at a county briefing if the district would have enough teachers to open schools, she replied: “We are not 100% sure.”
She said a wild card is the possibility that New Jersey will mandate all-remote learning should the coronavirus numbers spike upward. That would require the district to execute a radical pivot.
Joseph Meloche, the Cherry Hill superintendent, who joined McCombs at the Tuesday briefing, said officials are trying to figure out how to provide masks for students, teachers, and staff. The district’s plans call for students attending in-person classes two days a week. He said that disposable masks would cost a prohibitive $2.5 million.
All 11,000 students would be required to wear masks in class, and he urged parents to get their kids used to it during what is left of the summer.
Keith E. Benson, head of the Camden Education Association, said a union survey of nearly 1,100 members found that roughly 75% would return to the classroom but “with deep reservations.” The union has worked on the reopening plan and hopes “to find the safest way” to return to in-person instruction, he said.
”Personally, I do have some concerns,” Benson said. “The COVID, coronavirus is real.”
Staff writers John Duchneskie, Kristen A. Graham, Frank Kummer, Robert Moran, Ellie Rushing, Rob Tornoe, and Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.