Camden County held a press conference June 30 to discuss various elements of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, from the election process and education to the continued monitoring of virus cases.
Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr discussed voting in the June 7 primary election. Due to COVID, the state allowed the election to be held primarily through vote-by-mail, though the county did have a limited number of polling places available for residents to vote in person.
According to John Schmidt, of the Camden County Clerk’s Office, Camden County lowered its number of polling places from 343 to 172 in response to the pandemic.
Regarding education, Camden County College President Don Borden and Kimberly Dickstein Hughes, New Jersey’s Teacher of the Year from Haddonfield, addressed the topic of newly released state plans to get students back into classrooms this fall.
“I think like most of my colleagues in the community college sector and the four-year sector, our primary consideration in every regard is the health and safety of our students and of our staff,” said Borden. “And that creates some real difficulties in terms of providing a traditional educational environment.”
Borden said continuing to pursue an education, especially during COVID-19, will help provide students with a better opportunity to excel in the real world after the pandemic is over, no matter where they may attend school. At Camden County College specifically, Borden noted that the school will hold most of its courses virtually this fall, with a limited amount of exceptions for specific class needs.
“Our number-one priority in terms of on-campus instruction are those courses that really involve face-to-face, on-campus necessity,” Borden explained. “Courses that are not really aligned with a virtual environment completely. And by being able to limit the number of students in those environments, we can follow all the CDC guidelines.”
Having received a report from the state detailing its recommendations for in-person learning this fall, Dickstein Hughes said school districts face numerous challenges.
“After reading the guide, the 577 school districts (in the state) … must come up with a plan that they release at least four weeks before schools reopen,” she noted. “Every school district has to start a Restart Committee and a Pandemic Response Committee so that they are ready to return. So your school districts are still in the middle of starting those committees and reading through those guidelines while bringing together all stakeholders.”
The teacher added that in her opinion, flexibility is key for each individual district as it decides how to restart school this fall. Ideas include alternating in-person days during the week or allowing for all students to attend every day, while still implementing social distancing and other precautions.
Districts should also prepare for the possibility that remote learning will be instituted again this fall if there is a COVID resurgence.
“We need to be ready to pivot back … in the event there is a resurgence,” Dickstein Hughes advised. “So if you look at those three models, you need to be prepared to execute all of them. And now we have more time than we did before (to prepare).”
She also discussed the difficulties of teaching in person under COVID guidelines, including a requirement to wear face masks in the classroom.
“As an educator being required to wear a mask when teaching, my students can’t read me when I think about my students with special needs really understanding the tone of what I’m trying to communicate,” Dickstein Hughes said.
“That can be really key in terms of building relationships with your students.”
Cappelli addressed potential concerns regarding the future of COVID-19 in South Jersey, as other states that had partially reopened in various capacities have had to backtrack after a resurgence of the virus. Gov. Phil Murphy rescinded his original decision to allow for indoor dining starting July 2, a decision Cappelli said he supports.
“He’s being very aggressive, he’s not playing games, he’s not playing political games or games with people’s health,” Cappelli said of Murphy. “He’s putting health first … We have to be prudent. What we’ve proven here in Camden County is that our residents understand this virus and know what to do in order to prevent it.
“What (Gov. Murphy) is fearful of is, number one, people letting their guard down, especially some younger folks that will spread the virus amongst them and then ultimately to people my age and older that will get us back to where we were,” the freeholder director added. “And then number two, I think he’s very much concerned with what’s happening in other parts of the country.”
New Jersey announced on June 30 that visitors who come here from 16 states across the country — including Florida and Texas — must self-quarantine for 14 days. The quarantine is voluntary, but compliance is expected.
Per statistics compiled through the end of June, Camden County currently has 7,737 positive COVID cases, with 445 fatalities. Of those deaths, approximately 66 percent have occurred in long-term care facilities. The county and state have worked together to address treatment and care at such facilities.
“Many of them were not prepared and many of them did not meet the challenge once the virus got into their facility,” Cappelli said. “We stepped in at the request of the state and I can tell you that the spread of the virus is down drastically in those facilities.”