School board meets following two positive COVID-19 cases

Members to tour schools, visit classes as teachers request help

The Voorhees Township Public Schools Board of Education met for its monthly virtual session Sept. 23 and discussed positive COVID-19 cases in two schools, the appointment of a new board member, school operations and other topics.

At the top of the meeting, the board went into executive session to meet with and interview the six candidates who had applied for the open board seat left following the Aug. 15 resignation of Barbara Dunleavy.

Following that session, board members nominated two individuals for the open seat, with Scott Falk receiving yes’ votes from six of the eight members of the board. Falk is expected to be sworn in at next month’s meeting, following the completion of a background check.

Following the meeting, Falk told The Sun he started to become active in virtual board meetings and witnessed the decision-making process for reopening schools safely during COVID-19.

Falk, a critical care doctor and anesthesiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said he participated in the hospital’s planning for COVID-19, and that he looks forward to a similar task while on the board.

“I value the education that my children get here, and I wanted to make sure that we’re able to support our teachers and students in the safest way possible,” he said.

Later in the meeting, board members and teachers within the district spoke on recent positive COVID tests at two of the district’s elementary schools.

According to letters sent to parents, there were positive tests at both Kresson and Signal Hill elementary schools. As with all positive cases within Camden County, the district contacted the county’s Department of Health and is following its guidance, according to Superintendent David Gentile. Contract tracing is currently underway in the two positive cases.

Leanne Binkley, a physical education teacher at Signal Hill, raised concerns with the board about the recent positive test at the school. . Following an emergency meeting the day staff was notified of the test, Binkley said employees were assured that proper precautions would be taken in the event of any infections.

But she and other staff members at Signal Hill did not feel comfortable going back into the school to teach the day after a positive case, and they believe various staff members have not yet been notified of contact tracing.

“There are many of us who slipped through those cracks and we were not contacted,” the teacher said. “Perhaps we will be, but now this is pushing us into tomorrow; so there will be several of us going in tomorrow to Signal Hill to teach and we are curious: Will we be contacted within that 24-hour window? Some of us think we haven’t been contacted yet (when we should be) and that’s a problem.”

After the meeting, Gentile told The Sun that the district is working closely with the county health department on the matter and that both elementary schools are currently able to undergo in-person instruction, according to the county.

“At this time, the Camden County Department of Health had not advised a full classroom quarantine,” Gentile explained. “We will monitor our schools and consult with their officials as needed in any possible future cases.”

If a school were to go to all remote for any period of time due to a rise in COVID cases, Gentile said he is confident the schools are “equipped and prepared to do so.”

Board member Richard Nelson made two motions during the meeting that were unanimously passed. One would allow board members to tour school buildings to witness for themselves the conditions staff and students are working under with regard to COVID protocols and procedures. The second motion will allow board members to attend classes to see how teachers operate during the day while split between in-person and all-remote instruction.

That motion was filed following numerous requests from teachers for additional help regarding current district operations. Those requests  ranged from not having enough professional development to operate current software to inadequate time spent with in-person or remote students.

According to Gentile, the board will be surveyed on members’   participation in each activity moving forward. Once a schedule is agreed upon, the exception to the district’s current “no visitors” policy will allow board members to familiarize themselves with current  operations so they can react and make changes, if needed.

“All participants will need to strictly adhere to wearing their face coverings and observe the social-distancing guidance at all times as well,” said Gentile. “We have prohibited visitors in consideration of the health and safety protocols identified in the ‘Road Back’ guidance, a reference to the state’s reopening plan for schools.

“We will make an exception for our board members as essential visitors,” he added, “so they may gain a first-hand experience from the students’ and staff members’ perspectives.”

Board members also heavily debated two agenda items involving the employment of Michelle Santore as both executive secretary to the Superintendent and the assistant superintendent. Agenda items granted Santore a stipend of $4,500 for work done from July 1 to Oct. 30, while also increasing her salary by 20 percent, to $60,000 for the period from Nov. 1 to June 30, 2021.

The first agenda item passed by a 5-3 vote. The second item also passed despite a 4-4 vote; the board was tied due to a vacancy leaving the board with an even number of members. But board President Dawn Wallace’s vote in favor of that agenda item was enough to pass it.