Photo courtesy of ldh.la.gov
What began as two weeks of remote instruction back in 2020 quickly transformed into three school years disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With every new turn of events, Hunterdon Central has had to adapt in order to provide a quality education within the confines of a global crisis. This is the story of one high school’s attempt to provide normalcy amidst chaos.
Before the pandemic, Hunterdon Central ran like any other high school, albeit a rather large one, with 3,000 students and staff on campus at any given time. During unit lunch, students could congregate anywhere they wanted on campus, from cafeterias, to courtyards, to classrooms. Teachers were free to give out food during classes, and many held classroom parties during holidays or for end-of-the-year events. Traditions such as homecoming, the spring musical, Cabaret, and Mr. Central filled stadiums and auditoriums. This was the way that Hunterdon Central operated for years.
It all changed on March 16th, 2020, when Governor Murphy issued Executive Order 104 and mandated that schools close for two weeks due to the coronavirus spreading in New Jersey. Virtual learning began, with nearly no time for teachers to adapt their lessons and learn to use video calling technology such as Zoom and Google Meet. Hunterdon Central followed a delayed opening bell schedule, with classes starting at 9am and ending at 2pm. This continued up until the end of the school year, which concluded with a virtual and in-person graduation for the Class of 2020, signalling hopes for a return to the classroom next fall.
With COVID-19 still raging after the summer, an intricate reopening plan was developed prior to the 2020-2021 school year. Students had the option of attending school fully remote or going to class on campus two days a week per a hybrid in-person/virtual schedule. This schedule would consist of half days on all in-person school days. The school body was split into two groups, with the first group allowed on campus Mondays and Tuesdays, and the second group on Thursdays and Fridays. Students attending in person were required to fill out a Daily Health Assurance form prior to the school day; once on campus, they had to wear masks and practice proper social distancing. One way hallways were introduced as a means of reducing the amount of people in any given area. Instead of holding lunch in person, free lunches were offered at the end of each day to both in-person and fully remote students. Clubs hosted meetings virtually, and sports continued in person.
Teachers had to accommodate in-person and virtual students at the same time during classes, which proved to be extremely difficult for many. Some fully remote students felt neglected, while hybrid students felt frustrated with the lack of hands-on activities. This system was vastly different from the normal classroom experience students were used to.
As spring began, COVID-19 cases fell in Hunterdon County. The week of May 3rd, 2021, Hunterdon Central opened up the option of 4-day in person learning. Starting May 24th, virtual Wednesdays ended and students could attend school in person 5 days a week. Hallways returned to two-way just a week later. On June 9th, Dr. Moore announced that Daily Health Assurance forms were no longer necessary and masks were optional outdoors. This quick progression of events led many to believe that the following school year would be a return to normalcy.
However, the emergence of the Delta variant over the summer prevented schools from returning to their pre-COVID systems. While Hunterdon Central is open for full day in person learning this school year, there are still some key differences from previous years. As cases rose, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order 251 mandating masks for all students and staff in public and private schools. As such, Central is requiring masks until this Executive Order is lifted, in which case, masks will be optional for vaccinated individuals and “strongly encouraged” for unvaccinated individuals. Hunterdon Central also introduced two lunch blocks this year instead of unit lunch in order to further reduce the amount of students congregating without wearing masks. If COVID-19 case statistics rise in Hunterdon County, 4 lunch blocks will be considered. If worst comes to worst, school will return to operating on an early dismissal schedule with no lunch. No one is sure of what to expect in the upcoming months, but regardless, the 2021-2022 school year will be unlike anything students have experienced before.