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School District Forum Preps Parents for Upcoming Academic Year

Ocean City School District’s interim Superintendent Dr. Thomas Baruffi speaks during an Aug. 24 community forum

By Rebecca Fox

OCEAN CITY – An Aug. 24 community forum, hosted by Ocean City School District, began with a presentation by interim Superintendent Dr. Thomas Baruffi, who stated that full-time, in-person instruction is more beneficial to students than virtual, hybrid, or any other past options. 
He raised questions like, “Why are we here again?” and if the community should plan to face the same issues as last year.
“The answer to ‘why are we here again,’ I think, is pretty obvious,” he said. “This thing is not going away. This virus is still with us. We now have a new variant that we’re dealing with, and we have to deal with it. 
“The answer to the second question, I believe, is ‘I don’t think so.’ I don’t think we are going to be dealing with the same issues that we dealt with last year because things are different.”
During his presentation, which included statistics from AtlantiCare, Baruffi explained that the delta variant is responsible for almost all new cases, partly due to a higher viral load, being more transmissible, being as contagious as chickenpox, andthat thosevaccinated can still spread it. 
He also provided statistics that show pediatric and Cape May County’s case numbers are on the rise, although children seem to have mild symptoms when infected.
Baruffi said wearing masks is the top issue. 
Due to Executive Order 251 signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, masks must be worn indoors, meaning it is not a recommendation, but a mandate that all students, staff and outside visitors must wear masks while indoors during school hours. 
Thosewho don’t follow the mandate can face fines, and employees can lose their licenses, Baruffi said. Board members share the same obligation.
“Court orders pertain to schools,” Baruffi said. “Whether you agree with that or don’t agree with that, it doesn’t matter. It’s a fact that we have to deal with, and we will, and continue to talk about it.”
Baruffi said the school district will allow breaks for students to safely remove their masks, whether that’s students going outside for a brief relief, or time staggering and being distanced from one another when applicable. 
“This year, they won’t have to wear their mask when they’re outside,” Baruffi said. “That means we will have opportunities to give them breaks.”
Something new this school year – students will quarantine and contact trace differently than in the past. 
“The close-contact definition excludes students who were within 3-6 feet of an infected student, where both the infected student and the exposed students correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time,” Baruffi said.
“This is a game-changer,” he added. 
Last year, large groups of kids were missing school at the same time due to exposure and having to contact trace. 
“This exception that was added to the guidance that we have to follow now increases the importance of wearing a mask…” Baruffi said. 
There will be no remote instruction, with exceptions, per Baruffi.
 If there is inclement weather, “we’ll be off, simple as that,” he said, unless there is a state of emergency issued several days in advance to prepare for learning remotely. 
However, if a student becomes ill with Covid or must quarantine, remote instruction will be offered to them.
As of Aug. 23, Murphy requires that pre-K-12 school personnel be vaccinated by Oct. 18, orface testing at least weekly.
“We can’t afford to send 30 kids home,” Baruffi said.
Concerning meals (typically when masks come off), there will be social distancing of 3-6 feet. 
“We have to do the best we can to keep them separated,” Baruffi said. “That’s not going to be easy. You know it. I know it. We’re not going to kid anybody. We have an obligation to do the best we can.”
As for school facilities, students must be masked on buses, since they are considered an indoor space, frequently touched areas will be cleaned, adequate ventilation will be indoors, and cleaning and disinfecting will occur at least daily. 
“This is now doable,” Baruffi said. “We just have to agree we’re going to support each other and make it happen. That’s the key.”
When the floor opened to the public, worried parents and community members expressed their questions, concerns, suggestions and grievances. 
A question was asked regarding whether lunch would be held as a unit or at staggered times. In response, Baruffi said lunch will still be held as a unit, but every possible space available will be used to spread students out. 
The use of plastic shields around students’ areas was also a concern. In response by staff, plastic shields will still be used in elementary levels, and only during lunch in the cafeteria for middle school.
Elementary students will still be kept in their separate classes in the lunchroom to avoid large groupings and get students accustomed to the surroundings and guidelines. As time goes on, it will be looked at to expand from beyond each classroom. 
Due to the moderate weather experienced during fall, a question was asked about holding classes outdoors to reduce the usage of masks. Baruffi replied that is an option they are considering. 
Every Thursday, new information is released to the school district regarding Covid statistics, allowing the district to make decisions to help prevent the virus’ spread.
Updated information is posted on the school district’s website for parents and community members to access.
For example, there is a cohesive chart regarding how and when to quarantine and other steps that might need to be taken to which people can refer. If a student is considered exposed, they must get tested and present a negative test to return to school, or quarantine for a certain period. Information is located on the district’s website (https://bit.ly/3gAJu7A). 
Pushback against mask-wearing was also expressed during the forum’s open portion. Baruffi and other faculty members answered questions and concerns with the knowledge they had and explained they must follow the guidelines given to them by the state. 
“We all know that this variant is out there.Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, it doesn’t matter,” Baruffi said. “It’s out there. We don’t know what it’s going to be like bringing 1,300 kids into the school and what kind of impact that’s going to have … I’m hopeful that when we do come back, and those levels go down, that we get the green light to take these masks off. I hate wearing them as much as anybody does.”
Some parents and community members also worried about discrimination against vaccinated and unvaccinated students not having to quarantine and having to quarantine, as well as concerns regarding students’ privacy in the same matter, which, in response, was promised not to be a topic of conversation within the classroom. 
A suggestion raised by parents to get their opinions heard was the implementation of surveys. In response, it was noted there is a survey available on the district’s website (https://bit.ly/3kr5bbA). 
Additionally, Baruffi was open to creating more surveys throughout the school year to consider parents’ opinions.
To contact Rebecca Fox, email rfox@cmcherald.com.

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