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This was supposed to be the return-to-normal school year. It’s going to be anything but.

“A year like no other, part II,” said Philip Smart, a vice principal at Eastern Regional High School in Camden County.

In preparation for the 2021-22 school year, Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees held a "transition camp" for freshman and other students new to the school to help ease the transition back to in-person classes.
In preparation for the 2021-22 school year, Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees held a "transition camp" for freshman and other students new to the school to help ease the transition back to in-person classes.Read moreMIGUEL MARTINEZ / For the Inquirer

Thousands of students across the region will return to classes over the next few weeks — some as soon as Monday — beginning a school year that everyone hoped would return to normalcy.

But the delta variant has thrown schools another curveball, with educators scrambling to make plans for social distancing, masking, and quarantining. And it comes as schools will need to pour extra resources into assessing student progress after a year of interrupted learning and ensuring kids’ emotional needs are met amid all the upheaval.

“A year like no other, Part II,” said Philip Smart, a vice principal at Eastern Regional High School in Camden County. “We’re hopeful this year will be more regular than the last. It feels better, but there’s a lot of anxiety that lies ahead.”

Sara Hogan last attended classes inside Central High in Philadelphia in March 2020, as a freshman. She planned to be out for two weeks.

“Two weeks quickly turned into not going to school for a whole other year,” said Hogan, who will start her junior year at Central on Tuesday. Going back “almost seems unreal,” she said.

Entering the third school year under the pandemic, Upper Darby School District Superintendent Dan McGarry knows more about what educators will face this year. But he knows he won’t be able to control everything.

”We are anticipating, obviously, a roller-coaster ride again,” McGarry said. “Hopefully only through the fall.”

Some of the variables: A fast-spreading delta variant. The still-unknown arrival of a vaccine for children under 12. Staffing ranks that were already hard to fill holes in — particularly such positions as school bus drivers and other support staff — compounded by potential quarantines or leaves to take care of sick children.

‘My focus is on keeping schools open’

McGarry’s district has mapped out a series of “if, then” scenarios for COVID-19 cases that emerge. He imagines that staffing will be his biggest challenge.

Under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that were adopted by the district, if a student is near someone with COVID-19 but both were masked, it’s not considered a close contact. If a teacher has a child with COVID-19 but is well enough to work from home, they can virtually instruct their classroom, which will be monitored by an assistant, McGarry said. That may not be popular, but “my focus is on keeping schools open,” McGarry said.

As debates over masking and other pandemic policies divide school communities, McGarry is trying to explain the rationale behind the district’s plans — telling critics of masking, for instance, that the goal is to keep children in school.

We are anticipating, obviously, a roller-coaster ride again.

Upper Darby School District Superintendent Dan McGarry

”Whenever something fires up on social media, we meet with them,” McGarry said of parent groups. The pandemic has taught him that “you have to overcommunicate, constantly.”

He’s also encountering more families who have become reluctant to return to classrooms amid rising COVID-19 cases.

Less than 5% of Upper Darby students were enrolled in the district’s virtual program at the end of last school year, but the number has been growing, McGarry said. At the 3,800-student high school, virtual enrollment has climbed from 200 to 300, he said, with about five to 10 students switching every day.

Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the upcoming year will require districts to be nimble, and plans could change and then change again.

“Patience and flexibility will be essential as we strive to educate our students as the world remains in the midst of a pandemic,” Hite said.

He said the district is as prepared as it can be for the first day of school on Tuesday, and plans to spend funds from the federal recovery plan to mitigate learning loss and bolster emotional supports for 120,000 students, most of whom have spent 18 months out of physical classrooms.

But worries remain. Roman Krivitsky, a teacher of world history at Dobbins High School, a school of 1,200 in North Philadelphia, is excited to see his students again. But he worries about crowded hallways, classrooms where social distancing is not possible, and especially mealtimes.

“How can we let kids sit and eat without their masks on?” Krivitsky asked. “It’s going to cancel all the mitigation features out. They’re high school kids — they’re going to sit and talk to their friends without their masks.”

Hite has said schools must find ways to keep students the recommended three feet apart from each other at breakfast and lunch, getting creative with space, and even sending young people outside to eat. But that will require good weather, safe spaces, and adults to supervise. The superintendent has said extra support staff will be available, but offered no details.

Planning for contingencies: ‘We’re nervous’

Cherry Hill School Superintendent Joseph Meloche said his district is ready to welcome back about 11,000 students and 1,700 teachers next week.

“We want this, for our kids to be back in school,” Meloche said. “It’s where children belong. There is joy when there are children in schools.”

Meloche said the new school year always brings anxiety, but that’s ramped up this year. The district has a new mental health support program, he said.

School buildings have been prepared and the district has a contingency plan if Gov. Phil Murphy orders a shutdown because of a rise in cases.

In West Deptford, Superintendent Greg Cappello feels optimistic, but worried that the year could abruptly change. The Gloucester County district has tried to prepare for every possible scenario, he said.

“We’re concerned. We’re nervous,” said Cappello said. “Obviously, we’re not out of the pandemic woods.”

Cappello said the district will follow health and safety precautions and maintain social distancing as much as possible. Back-to-school night will be held outside on the athletic track, he said.

“If something happens, we’re not going to miss a beat,” said Cappello. “We’re going to be ready for it.”

‘We have to be their safe place’

In Camden, one of the last districts to return to in-person learning last spring, there will be a focus on students’ social and emotional needs, said Superintendent Katrina McCombs. High school students were remote for the entire year.

“We have to be patient and meet them where they are,” McCombs said. “We understand that last year was painful in many ways.”

McCombs said her goal is to get students reacclimated by providing a consistent routine and clear expectations for behavior to create a safe learning environment.

“I cannot wait to hear the hustle and bustle in the hallways,” said McCombs. ”I’m excited about our doors being open again.”

Aliye Pehlivan, 17, a senior at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, is looking forward to seeing friends again. She did virtual learning last year because of health concerns.

“I haven’t seen my friends in two years. I missed learning in class,” Pehlivan said.

Most teachers didn’t get an in-person first day last year, and Michele Curay-Cramer is looking forward to this one. The West Chester Area School District, where Curay-Cramer teaches English to middle schoolers, returns Monday.

Still, Curay-Cramer isn’t just excited.

“I won’t lie — in the back of my head, I’m a little nervous,” said Curay-Cramer. Her job is to keep students in school, safely, to acknowledge the pandemic, but to help students to think beyond its challenges.

”We have to be their safe place,” said Curay-Cramer, president of the West Chester Area Education Association.

We’re going to see a variety of learners in front of us, and it’s all about the relationships, how we connect with them and help them feel safe.

Shawn Dzielawa, teacher at West Chester's Greystone Elementary

Teachers are always worried about coursework, but Chris Reyna, a social studies and psychology teacher at Rustin High School in West Chester, said building relationships will be a bigger focus.

“I’m worried about understanding my kids, and making sure I know them,” said Reyna. On his mind: the prospect of having to shift to virtual school, and making sure his students will be comfortable enough to engage over a computer screen.

As a teacher of second graders whose kindergarten and first grades were both disrupted by the pandemic, Shawn Dzielawa is thrilled to start the year in person at Greystone Elementary in West Chester. But she knows the effects of the past 18 months will still linger.

”There’s going to be a need to bring some normalcy back,” she said. Given how different children’s experiences have been, “we’re going to see a variety of learners in front of us, and it’s all about the relationships, how we connect with them and help them feel safe — and work our way toward learning.”