District tackles questions about hybrid model at first virtual town hall

Session draws about 1,000 viewers concerned about in-person learning.

Students again walked the halls of Cherry Hill Public Schools on Tuesday, Nov. 17, for the first time since March.

After the launch of the hybrid learning model was delayed by one week, district officials convened the first virtual town hall meeting to address any concerns about students and staff returning to in-person instruction.

Community members had the opportunity to submit questions prior to the Nov. 16 town hall. Superintendent Joseph Meloche said the district received more than 90 questions and around 1,400 virtual attendees tuned in to the live event.

Meloche opened the meeting by acknowledging the difficulties of getting   students back in the classroom. 

“This has certainly been a tumultuous and challenging last week, and honestly a challenging eight months for many of us,” he said.

Meloche explained that the week-long delay in the hybrid model was at the recommendation of the Camden County Department of Health. On Nov. 9, the department informed the district that it had identified three dozen positive cases of COVID-19 in Cherry Hill children between the ages of 7 and 18 years old. Because the department had not completed contact tracing for all of those cases, health officials advised the district to delay reopening in-person until contact tracers completed their investigations. After tracing was completed, the health department informed the district it was safe to bring students back. For that reason, school officials announced on Nov. 11 that the hybrid model was back on for the following week. 

As it stands, about 53 percent of Cherry Hill students are participating in the hybrid model of instruction while 47 percent are fully remote. The numbers vary by grade level, with elementary-level students accounting for about 62 percent of those in the hybrid model, middle-school students at 57 percent and high-school students at 50 percent.

Meloche and other school officials tackled a variety of questions on Monday night. One submitted query addressed how many staffers are currently out because of COVID. Meloche provided an overview, saying of the district’s 1,702  employees, 11 staff members are currently infected, 12 are awaiting test results and 12 are quarantining due to possible exposure. 

Another questioner asked if one positive case would result in an entire school closure. Paschal Nwako, Camden County’s health officer/public health coordinator, was on the town hall’s Zoom call and explained that was not the   case. 

He added that all schools are required to have a seating chart for each classroom. While the students sitting around a COVID-positive person may be asked to quarantine, an entire classroom would not have to if masks were worn and social distancing were practiced.

Nwako explained that while every positive case is reported to the health  department, there can sometimes be a lag time of between 24 and 72 hours before a case enters the state system. For that reason, he encouraged everyone on the call to immediately report any positive results to the school district, which would then contact the state. Nwako said that immediate reporting reduces the  24- to 72-hour delay and ensures health department contact tracers can get to work faster. 

Meloche also responded to a question about why the district would start a hybrid model with COVID cases on the rise and the upcoming holiday season just around the corner. He answered that educators know there’s an added benefit to in-person instruction, and they want to give the district’s youngest, most vulnerable and neediest learners the ability to be in a school building and access programs that can’t be delivered remotely. 

Barbara Kase-Avner, the district’s lead nurse, walked virtual attendees through the COVID checklist students and staff are asked to complete every day before entering school. District officials are asking staff and students to be on the lookout for a variety of symptoms, including cough, chills, sore throat, congestion and several others listed on the at-home checklist. 

“It’s incumbent on all of us to keep each other safe at this time, so we’re asking parents to be responsible with this,” Kase-Avner said. 

She stressed that if parents have any degree of uncertainty about their child’s health, they should keep their child home and on remote instruction. As long as a  student is logged in, he or she will be counted as present. 

“It’s a pandemic, and we cannot be too careful,” she Kase-Avner added. 

Meloche said there will be more opportunities for questions at additional virtual town hall meetings in the weeks to come. In the meantime, he asked attendees to practice patience and grace with students and teachers as they adjust to the  new style of learning. 

“It’s going to take everyone time to get used to what this is going to look like,” he  said.