Voorhees school district looks ahead to new year

Mental-health initiatives started during COVID will continue

In the new year, Eastern Regional High School will be continuing its Social and Emotional Learning initiatives that began earlier in the pandemic. (EMILY LIU/The Sun)

COVID forced many school districts to rethink how they did things and provided an opportunity for growth. Throughout 2021, township public schools and Eastern Regional High School navigated remote learning, mask mandates and other results of the pandemic. 

Not all of the changes have been negative, as the district will continue some of its COVID practices into the new year. At the public schools, acting Superintendent Michael Redfearn said student safety and health remain top priorities in the new year. 

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“We know from Thanksgiving that it’s spiking now,” he said of COVID. “After the holidays, we’re going to assume it’ll continue to spike.”

Before winter break, the district held three COVID vaccination clinics for students and employees. Redfearn noted that with other COVID measures such as the mask mandate, the district will defer to the governor and the state Department of Health. 

As of right now, mask-wearing, handwashing and five full days of instruction will still be in place.

In response to the decline in mental health throughout the pandemic, the district recently partnered with Care Solace, a 24/7 mental-health service for staff and students.

“We’re really excited about that,” Redfearn said, explaining that staffers have been trained on how the program works and students can be recommended by their parents, school nurses or guidance counselors to receive mental-health care. 

Parent support groups that were introduced this year and are facilitated by a professional from the Center of Emotional Health are also set to continue.

In the new school year, residents can look forward to the opening of Voorhees schools’ new kindergarten addition at Kresson Elementary that involves adding 10 new classrooms and five renovated classrooms for incoming kindergarteners. 

The district has also updated its social studies curriculum to be up to date with recent history, including the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman.

As mentioned at the recent board of education meeting, Redfearn noted that the search for a new superintendent continues, and the district accepted applications for the position until Dec. 24. The district has surveyed its teachers, administrators, community members and parents to learn what they hoped to see in a superintendent and will review those responses in the new year.

Board of education meetings will continue to be available remotely but will begin at 7 p.m. rather than 7:30 p.m. moving forward. And in January, the board will swear in incumbents Monica Watson and Rachel Van Aken, along with Randi Stoopler, to the board at its reorganization meeting on Jan. 5.

After experiencing a dip in the number of students enrolled, Eastern Regional High School District Superintendent Robert Cloutier was able to report that 2021 marked a 100-student increase since 2019’s enrollment.

“That’s tremendous news, because we were in a cycle of declining enrollment,” Cloutier explained. “ … This is the first time we’ve seen a significant increase in many years, and that’s terrific because it allows us to take advantage of our size.” 

The district will be able to cater to its growing population with a wider range of courses, AP classes and electives.

Courses for next year include Sports Media and Communication; a coding course in the special-education program that is different from the one that’s been offered in past several years; Drone Aviation; a third year of Architecture, Drawing and Engineering; and an honors level of orchestra.

While some things were put on hold, the district has also created several initiatives it hopes to continue through the 2023-’24 school year. These include the expanded credit recovery program that helps students stay on track to graduate, mental-health services and the Dylan’s Wings of Change Wingman program that incorporates Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). 

In December, the district also began a process that allows for a combination of clubs financially supported by the district with a paid activity advisor and those without a school-sponsored advisor so students can meet after school. Eastern will still provide appropriate supervision, but it would be a more informal structure.

“It can remain an informal-structure club for that year and disappear with the students of that year, or it can be the starting point of proposing a formal club that the board will approve from year to year,” Cloutier explained. 

Following the passage of a $10 million bond referendum, the district also hopes to begin construction on a new HVAC system in the summer that would allow for temperature-controlled rooms, air conditioning and heating throughout the school. Cloutier noted that the process is contingent on being able to purchase supplies, an issue given recent national supply-chain shortages.

The Eastern district will continue to follow guidance from the governor and the Department of Health with regards to COVID safety. Cloutier said the district hopes to create a new web page for the district. 

“The pandemic has proved the incredible importance of getting information out, but the dilemma is that there is so much information,” he said. “This (new page) will both highlight the information that people really need to know, (while also) having a webpage/communication strategy that really showcases our students’ and staff’s achievements.”

In January, members Robert Campbell and Veronica Parker will renew their terms on the board.

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