New Jersey students prepare to head back to school as delta variant spreads

State officials in New Jersey have said unless the pandemic takes a severe turn schools will stay in-person.
TRENTON, New Jersey (WPVI) -- Schools are about to open for the year in New Jersey and we found many excited students and parents.

But we also found those who are nervous about the spreading delta variant of COVID-19.

Some teens we talked to had one big hope for this school year: no virtual classes.

"It was just harder to learn, harder to ask teachers questions," explained Marc Mercuri, a student at Burlington County Institute of Technology Westampton. "I guess some people were too nervous to ask questions on camera."

"I feel fine with wearing a mask. I don't have a problem with that," said Arianna Lospenuso, who is heading back to Doane Academy in Burlington.

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But for Rancocas Valley junior Sophie Loewen, she's concerned about her unvaccinated brothers.

"I wish I could do virtual. But I also fell really behind last year and I wish I wouldn't have missed so much," said Loewen.

Her mother, Moon Coles, is nervously preparing for the start of the school year.

"I see online all these other comments from people who are like, 'Oh, unmask our kids' and things like that and it makes me nervous because I'm sending my kid to school with their children as well, and they're not using the same precautions as we are," said Coles.

But state officials in New Jersey have said unless the pandemic takes a severe turn schools will stay in-person.

"Unless this thing goes south on us in a very big way, and I'm not sure how I'd necessarily define that... we're staying in person," said Gov. Phil Murphy (D) during a COVID-19 briefing on Monday afternoon.

Also Monday, New Jersey officials said 6 million masks and 500,000 child sized masks are available to school districts to have on hand in case someone forgets one.

While New Jersey has mandated masks in schools regardless of vaccination status, Pennsylvania has left that decision up to each district, and some have made masks optional.

According to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 63% of all parents support mandating masks for unvaccinated students and staff.

"I'm fine with that, said Courtney Larocca, a mother of three from Chesterfield, N.J. "My kids are okay with wearing a mask. They're used to it and I think it'll be fine."

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The debate rages on as hospitalizations climb throughout the country. New Jersey's hospitalizations have more than doubled in the past month. AtlantiCare's hospitals are seeing a rise in COVID-19 patients, mostly among the unvaccinated - but they are seeing some breakthrough cases.

"We are starting to see what we call those breakthrough cases - individuals that are fully vaccinated," said Gemma Downham, an epidemiologist with AtlantiCare. "And those tend to be people that have had high-risk exposures: unmasked close contact with people that were symptomatic and infectious."

Downham also notes those breakthrough patients who are vaccinated have been less severe than those who are unvaccinated. She's also expecting the number of COVID-related cases to rise.

"When fall comes, when people start to go back indoors, when the children go back to school, when some of these exposure events are going to become more commonplace, that's when we expect the numbers to start going up. But we are seeing across this country very high levels of transmission."

State officials say they are now preparing to reopen vaccine megasites as they await guidance from the CDC on when people should receive their third dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
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