About 900 Camden students have returned to the classroom for hybrid learning

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The banners saying “Welcome” and “Bienvenidos” were hung by the door with care as teachers and staff at H.B. Wilson Family School in Camden celebrated the return of students to the building Monday morning, more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to learn remotely.

The Camden City School District began phasing in hybrid learning to coincide with the beginning of the final marking period.

“We just wanted to make sure that we were able to bring students back when we could do it safely, when we could assure our parents that all boxes have been checked, we’re following CDC guidelines,” said Superintendent Katrina McCombs. “We wanted our staff members to feel safe enough to come back as well.”

Teachers escort students to H.B. Wilson Elementary School
Teachers escort students to H.B. Wilson Elementary School in Camden, N.J., for their first day of in-person learning in more than a year. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The district upgraded filtration systems, deep-cleaned buildings, set up sanitizing stations, and separated desks in the interest of physical distancing. The district is also providing personal protection equipment or PPE.

McCombs said that teachers and staff were also encouraged to get vaccinated against COVID-19. However, the district does not require vaccinations, nor are teachers and staff required to tell the district if they were inoculated.

“But we know that many of our staff members have been vaccinated,” she added.

Students arriving at H.B. Wilson Elementary School
Students arriving at H.B. Wilson Elementary School in Camden, N.J., are greeted by teachers and staff. Camden schools are reopening with a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, starting with students in pre-K through second grade. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Roughly 900 students in pre-K through second grade make up the first group to return, along with select high-needs students. One set will attend school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other on Wednesdays and Thursdays. All students will be remote on Fridays.

Students in grades three through five will be next, followed by middle and high school students, though officials could not say when that will happen. The district hopes to have all students back in the classroom in some form by the end of May. Gov. Phil Murphy has said his administration expects all students to return to the classroom full-time by the time the new school year starts in September.

At Wilson Family School, the atmosphere was like a party as firefighters pulled up to the school in their truck, along with some Camden County police officers — one of whom arrived in a Slingshot motorcycle blasting music. A school staffer later plugged in a PA system to keep the tunes going.

Seven-year-old Divine Burton was not only allowed to sit on the motorcycle, but even honked the horn a couple of times. His mother, Ramonita Flores, said Divine had been up since 5:30 a.m., excited to come to school.

Flores was also looking forward to his return to the classroom because it will allow her to find a job and “get back to my normal life.”

NiG Kinard escorts her son, Keith Kinard III, 8, to opening day
Ni G Kinard escorts her son, Keith Kinard III, 8, to opening day at H.B. Wilson Elementary School in Camden. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I got laid off because of the time and the schedule of schooling. It collided with my job,” she said.

Eight-year-old Keith Kinard III, a second-grader, said the past year was challenging because of the pandemic. When asked whether he liked learning from home, Keith offered his unequivocal take: “It sucks.”

Admittedly shy, he added that he was looking forward to seeing his “BFFs.”

His mom, Ni G Kinard, also said remote learning could be difficult, adding that the safety of the students was the main concern. While her two other children are still learning from home, she was glad to see Keith go back to the classroom.

“He needed to come back,” she said. “He needed to get out of the house.”

Students settle in at their desks
Students settle in at their desks for their first day of in-person learning in more than a year at H.B. Wilson Elementary School in Camden, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It was also Marclla Vincent’s first day back. She’s been a school district crossing guard for the last 12 years, and said she knew the kids were all tired of staying at home.

“They miss their friends,” she said. “They’re used to playing football, basketball, and stuff.”

She shared their frustration.

“Cook, clean [and] all that, and after I’m done, I don’t have anything else to do, so I’ll play with my kids,” she added.

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