Berlin Borough, Eastern High School districts revise learning plans

Officials cite recent surge in COVID-19 cases as the cause

An increase in COVID-19 cases has resulted in the Eastern High School and Berlin Borough school districts making changes in their education models.

The Eastern Camden County Regional School District sent out a communication to parents on Nov. 15 notifying them that the next day, the high school would move to 100-percent remote instruction for general and special education programs because of an increase in community COVID  cases that required full consultation with the Camden County Department of Health.

According to the district communication, multiple positive cases caused 12 staff members and 67 students to quarantine. At the time, the district and county were also investigating five additional reported cases among staff and students.

But Superintendent Robert Cloutier said in an interview with The Sun that the morning after the parent notification, the district was notified by the county health department that those positive cases did not mean   Eastern had a “school outbreak.”

“The good news is that there were not enough cases that were positive that were on campus … so we were not a school outbreak under the definition,” he explained. “However, quite honestly, most of the issues we’ve been having (at Eastern) are with people having household spreads … We reached a tipping point where too many staff members had to quarantine, which is the second time we’ve had to make that move.”

According to Cloutier, classroom instruction is anticipated to operate under the district’s Phase I plan until Dec. 4; a return to on-campus instruction is expected on Dec. 7.

In its parental communication, the Eastern district again confirmed “decreased staffing levels and the number of students required to quarantine as a result of positive test results, or “close-contact’ designation,” as the main reasons for returning to the Phase I plan. According to the district, cases under investigation as of the date of the parental notice are not expected to affect a return to on-campus instruction next month.

Meanwhile, the Berlin Borough School District sent out a communication on Nov. 11 notifying parents that its remote-only instruction would be extended until Dec. 23 due to staffing issues and rising COVID cases in the community.

The district originally moved to remote-only instruction on Oct. 27, following two unrelated positive COVID cases among district employees.

The original transition to remote-only instruction was not mandated or recommended by the county health department, according to Superintendent Joseph Campisi, and neither was the current transition. But he said the district’s extension of remote learning was prompted by a lack of staff for in-person learning.

“The biggest challenge we have is making sure we have enough staff on site to properly supervise the children,” Campisi explained. “When we run into situations where a staff member is a close contact and they need to quarantine, they can still teach from home. However, we still have to have someone in the classroom supervising the students.

“Our system was set up for every student to come back,” he added. “We had the space and the PPE (personal protective equipment) in place, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have the necessary staff … you can’t safely supervise the students with that process regardless.”

Campisi reiterated that Berlin Community School has not had any in-school transmissions of COVID, according to the county Department of Health, but that one positive individual labeled a “close contact” can lead to the quarantining of students and staff members.

Moving forward, staff will teach from empty classrooms at Berlin Community School, while students connect for virtual learning from their homes. Campisi also said that while the district has temporarily moved to remote-only learning, the schedule for the school day has not changed. 

The district will continue to evaluate community spread, employee and student travel, school-district cases and other issues in determining whether students can return to in-person learning, set for Monday, Jan. 4.

“Every decision I’ve made during COVID has been based on science and applying it as best I can to Berlin Community School,” Campisi noted. “As we get to that last week in December, we hope that people will make us aware of their travel to help us make the best decision … But I want nothing more than to be able to go back to in-person learning in January, if we deem it safe.”