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schools reopen

Schools reopen this fall: Is it safe? 

New Jersey announces students will be back for full-time, in-person for the 2021-2022 school year as schools reopen statewide. 

It’s time to say goodbye to virtual learning as schools reopen this fall. According to the official site of the state of New Jersey, schools will be reopening full-time and in-person for the upcoming school year. Schools first closed back in March 2020, when the pandemic began and instruction moved online. Throughout the 2020 – 2021 school year, the majority of NJ schools remained virtual or offered hybrid learning options, with a mix of in-person and virtual students. Now, officials say parents or guardians will not be able to opt children out of in-person instruction for this upcoming school year. 

Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

The closing of schools last year led to mixed responses from parents and families. Some welcomed the opportunity to spend more time with their children. Others worried about the quality of their children’s education and wondered if virtual learning would be enough to keep children on track. Many working parents also struggled, juggling homeschooling and working from home. And parents who did not have the luxury to work from home faced the challenge of finding childcare for their children amid the pandemic. 

Now, schools are reopening, and feelings are once again mixed. Some worry that it’s not safe, especially with new, stronger COVID-19 variants spreading quickly across the globe, such as the more contagious Delta variant that has been particularly infectious among the young and unvaccinated–aka the prime population of students. Other parents are glad to see a sense of normalcy return to their children’s lives and routines. 

Regardless of where you stand in the debate, without the option to opt out of in-person learning this year, it is important for NJ parents to familiarize themselves with the new rules, guidelines, and safety precautions that will be in place for students this fall. 

Safety precautions for returning students 

According to NJ.gov, all students, educators, staff, and visitors will be required to wear face masks inside of school buildings, regardless of vaccination status, for the start of the 2021-2022 academic year.  Effective Monday, August 9, 2021, masks are required in the indoor premises of all public, private, and parochial preschool, elementary, and secondary school buildings, with limited exceptions.

Exceptions to the mask requirement include:

  • When doing so would inhibit the individual’s health, such as when the individual is exposed to extreme heat indoors;
  • When the individual has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove a face covering without assistance;
  • When a student’s documented medical condition or disability, as reflected in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Educational Plan pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, precludes use of a face covering;
  • When the individual is under two (2) years of age;
  • When an individual is engaged in an activity that cannot be performed while wearing a mask, such as eating and drinking or playing an instrument that would be obstructed by the face covering;
  • When the individual is engaged in high-intensity aerobic or anerobic activity;
  • When a student is participating in high-intensity physical activities during a physical education class in a well-ventilated location and able to maintain a physical distance of six feet from all other individuals; or
  • When wearing a face covering creates an unsafe condition in which to operate equipment or execute a task.

Additionally, the Department of Education, in partnership with the Department of Health, has produced a health and safety guidance document detailing recommendations designed to provide a healthy and safe environment for students and staff during the 2021-2022 school year.

These strategies are recommendations, not mandatory standards. The absence of one or more of these strategies should not prevent school facilities from opening for full-day, in-person operation.

You might be interested: Reopening schools during Covid-19? Educator and activist Maria Santiago-Valentin weighs in

Vaccinations, social distancing, and more: Will it be enough? 

Alongside the mask mandate, schools will also be enforcing social distancing, promoting vaccinations and testing, and encouraging parents and caregivers to monitor their children for symptoms. 

Vaccinations are currently not required, however strongly encouraged for students and staff who are eligible to be vaccinated. Since most K-12 schools will have a mixed population of fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated, and unvaccinated individuals at any given time, schools will require the layering of preventive measures to protect individuals who are not fully vaccinated. This will include social distancing within the classroom and an effort to screen and report when children are displaying symptoms. Caregivers are encouraged to actively keep watch of their child’s health and report symptoms to the school. Students who are sick should not attend school until symptoms subside. 

All these precautions are crucial to ensuring the safety of students as they return to full-time, in-person instruction. It is unclear if schools will remain fully open throughout this upcoming school year, however, for now, we can say goodbye to virtual learning as schools reopen for this fall. 

For information on the status of school reopenings in other states, be sure to visit your state’s official website. To check for your state’s mask mandate, see here

Reopening Schools

Reopening schools during Covid-19? Educator and activist Maria Santiago-Valentin weighs in

As we near the end of summer, schools across the country are preparing for the start of a new year. But what will this school year look like for students and parents? The central debate among districts, educators, and families is whether reopening schools during Covid will be possible or safe. It may seem like a no-brainer, stay home! But the issue becomes more complicated when you begin to factor in the fact that not all parents have the luxury of being able to work from home during these times. The truth is, many families rely on schools as childcare during the work-week.

Reopening Schools

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The uncertain future of education

Maria Santiago-Valentin is an activist and educator with over 25 years of experience in her field. She is passionate about education, having taught in Puerto Rico, Connecticut, and New Jersey. A life-long learner herself, she knows and values the importance of a quality education.

“Education is a crucial foundation for our youth,” she says. “We need quality education to help younger generations pave the way toward better futures for our society.”

However, the future of education for our youth is currently uncertain as Covid threatens another school year.

Since spring, schools have been getting by through online instruction. This has helped lessen the spread of the virus by keeping student populations distant as they learn remotely from home. But this was never meant to be a permanent solution, and many school districts simply are not equipped to provide long-term online instruction.

“At the beginning I thought it was going to be a three-week lock-down, but it turned longer,” says Maria, reflecting back on the early days of the outbreak back in March. “I continued working for my school remotely during this time, I am a Child Study Team member in a public school. In the evenings I continued with my online classes with Walden University. I am in the last course before starting my dissertation. There were some inconveniences, but I adjusted to the new normal and I am very thankful to God to be here today.”

The debate: reopening schools during Covid

Online education has helped us all stay afloat during these uncertain times, but the big question on everyone’s minds is when will things ‘go back to normal?’

Reopening schools during Covid has brought on a fierce debate. Parents and teachers worry over health and safety, while others also struggle with the harsh reality of having to juggle their careers and parenting. Without schools, many working parents will have no one to look after their children should they have to attend online school.

Working from home

Working parents struggle to juggle their careers and parenting. Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

In a recent press release, New Jersey’s teacher union head said it’s “not plausible” to reopen schools on time in September amid the coronavirus crisis, contending that Garden State’s educators, staff, and administrators don’t have nearly enough time to get ready.

As an educator and champion for Latino families, Maria weighs in on the issue of reopening schools during Covid.

“My take is that there are many issues that need to be taken into consideration,” says Maria. “Covid-19 can easily spike if a school district is not following precautions for children and staff, causing deaths. However, many working families, among them many Latinos, do not have a caregiver nor the money to pay a caregiver to leave their children with while working.”

fighting for education

Maria Santiago-Valentin, Educator and Activist for classroom inclusion and environmental sustainability

Maria has always fought for education, and she is prepared to continue that fight against the threat of Covid-19.

“I am an educator since 1992. I understand some teachers have sick relatives they have to take care of because of Covid-19. I understand we are getting paid with the taxes of working families. I understand we chose this career for the good and the bad. I feel we need to show up to work. Imagine a military not wanting to go to war. Our war is Covid-19. We show up y que Dios nos proteja.”

In the end though, this is a debate that has no clear solution. “Covid-19 is totally unpredictable,” says Maria, “and all the solutions we have are the ones prior to the pandemic. We need a plan for a new, green, sustainable normalcy.”

Fighting for a sustainable future

In addition to her work as an educator, Maria also works with various organizations as an activist and leader. During the pandemic, she was appointed administrator of the ALL Ladies League Chapter in Barcelona of the Women Economic Forum (WEF), Spain. “The WEF is an associate of ALL Ladies League (ALL), the world’s largest All-inclusive international women’s chamber and a movement for the Welfare, Wealth, and Well-being of ALL. As a superhighway of ‘Internet of women’​, ALL is a worldwide web of women’s leadership, friendship and entrepreneurship.”

Maria was appointed the 2020 Chairperson for the ALL New Jersey Chapter for Business Networking and was the recipient of the highest and most prestigious WEF Global Award by the judges of the WEF Bangalore Committee: “Iconic Women Creating a Better World for All.”

Maria’s commitment to making a difference in the world extends to the environment as well. As a devoted climate change advocate, Maria has co-founded the Atlantic Climate Justice Alliance. Founded with 7 other Latinos living in the Diaspora and a member from Trinidad Tobago, the non-profit is an environmental justice organization for humanitarian relief, advocacy, and education purposes.

On the topic of climate change and it’s effect on the pandemic, Maria says there are a couple of intersections within the topics of climate change, environmental justice, and Covid-19.

classroom inclusion environment

Maria Santiago-Valentin, speaker at climate change rallies in New Jersey

“The impact of climate change in communities of color has shown how vulnerable our communities are to Covid-19 with health prevalent conditions that aggravates the situation. Environmental justice issues such as poor water quality, indoor/outdoor air pollution, and poor ventilation increase the spread of the disease. The climate crisis that is changing the intensity of the meteorological systems is intersecting with the public health system and Covid-19. If, in addition, we take into consideration the economic crisis, and the disparities in communities of color, the recovery of those communities is compromised. For example, systems like Isais, storms and fires. Florida had to close the Covid-19 testing sites prior to the storm. These events accelerated by climate change expose the level of preparedness and response our governments and agencies must deal with both circumstances at the same time (Covid-19 and a hurricane).”

These are also the same communities likely to be the most affected by the issue of not reopening schools during Covid. Facing environmental and economic difficulties, these communities will continue to be hit the hardest by the pandemic.

You might be interested: Ojala Threads social entrepreneur supports underserved communities during the pandemic

While there are no definite solutions to these issues, we can only continue to work toward a better future that will help and protect all, including our most vulnerable communities. That is what Maria will continue to do across all her platforms, as an educator, environmental activist, and leader.

Through her experiences during the pandemic, Maria has learned not to take like and routines for granted, since the future is uncertain and “to thank God everyday for the miracle of life.”