Newark prepares to reopen classrooms next month, but union cautions plan could change

New York City advocates are urging the city to release class-size data on time and to break it into specific categories.
Newark is preparing for students to return to classrooms two days a week, but a final decision has yet to be made. (Courtesy photo/Newark Public Schools)

Update: The Newark school district said Monday evening that all students will continue learning remotely until Jan. 25.

The Newark school system is preparing for students to return to classrooms part time beginning next month, though a final decision has yet to be made. With coronavirus cases rising, the city teachers union says the district should only reopen school buildings if it can do so safely.

Under the district’s tentative plan, students will have the option of returning to classrooms two days a week beginning Nov. 19, the union president said. They will continue learning from home on the other three days as they have been since the pandemic shuttered school buildings in March. Families can also opt to continue full-time remote learning.

Students who choose hybrid learning will be divided into two groups that attend in-person classes either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday, with all students learning from home on Wednesdays, the union said. Classroom teachers will be responsible for instructing the students sitting in front of them and, at the same time, students learning online — an arrangement that has proven challenging for educators in districts attempting hybrid learning.

Some teachers have expressed alarm about returning amid a resurgence of coronavirus infections, which Newark’s mayor this week called the pandemic’s “second wave.” Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon called the uptick “a major concern” and said the district must make sure classrooms can reopen “as safely as possible.” 

Yet he also said teachers need to get ready to return.

“We don’t make the decision,” about reopening schools, Abeigon said in an interview Saturday, adding that it is up to the district superintendent and state and local health officials. “Regardless of what their decision is, if it is safe to do so, Newark teachers will go back and they’ll be prepared.”

Teachers will report to schools on Nov. 2 to make sure their classrooms are set up for hybrid learning, Abeigon said. That includes checking for working wireless internet, that plastic barriers are installed atop student desks, and that classroom cleaning supplies are available. They will begin teaching remotely from their classrooms Nov. 11, giving them a week to rehearse safety procedures before students are slated to arrive.

Superintendent Roger León has said the district will decide by early November whether to resume in-person learning. The verdict could have far-reaching consequences. 

Newark students have been out of classrooms for seven months, which experts warn could stunt their academic growth and deprive them of critical social interactions and services. In-person learning can provide students with academic and social benefits that are hard to match remotely.

The health risks of reopening schools have been fiercely debated. Research suggests children under 14 are less likely to contract COVID-19 and they are less likely to become seriously ill from the disease. Yet it’s still possible for young people to become infected and spread the virus, and the many adults who work in schools are at higher risk of infection.

Nationwide, early data appears to show that relatively few students and teachers have become infected in schools that have reopened since August. And in New Jersey, where roughly 500 districts began the school year with at least some in-person classes, just 22 COVID outbreaks in schools have been reported.

Yet community spread of the virus can heighten the risk of school outbreaks, and New Jersey is experiencing an uptick in coronavirus cases amid a nationwide resurgence — though New Jersey’s increase has been less severe than most states’. 

Newark has also seen a rise in infections, with a current average of 43 new cases per day compared with just 10 to 14 daily cases before the recent surge, Mayor Ras Baraka said last week. COVID deaths, however, remain far below their peak last spring.

The city’s COVID test positivity rate is 7.4%, Baraka said Friday, citing a three-day average. Some sections have much higher rates: 10.4% in the North Ward and 19.1% in the East Ward, he said, based on recent testing over several days. A community with a 14-day test positivity rate below 8% faces moderate risk of in-school transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; areas with a rate above 10% face the highest risk.

“We are officially in the second wave of COVID, folks,” Baraka said Wednesday.

The statewide rise in cases has prompted a few New Jersey districts to scrap their reopening plans. Paterson Public Schools and KIPP New Jersey, which operates 15 Newark charter schools, both cited the increase as a factor in their recent decisions to delay in-person learning until January.

The Newark school district has not given any recent updates about its plan to reopen classrooms, which had been scheduled for September but was delayed due to safety concerns. A district spokesperson did not respond to multiple emails last week asking about the plan.

Superintendent León has said the tentative plan to resume in-person learning next month will depend on the spread of the coronavirus, though he has not said how much local spread would be acceptable.

“This will all be determined by the realities of where we are in Newark and in the state of New Jersey, as it relates to the global pandemic,” he told district employees last month.

Another factor in the district’s decision will be the number of educators willing to return to schools and parents willing to send their children.

The district will send a survey to staff members on Monday asking about their “interest and availability” for in-person teaching, the union said. Abeigon told members Friday that “a lot is riding on that survey.”

But it’s unclear how much choice teachers have in the matter. Some principals told teachers last week that they could request to continue working remotely next month only if they have a documented illness or disability, or they have been approved for family or medical leave, teachers said. 

“You’re going to force people to come in during a pandemic without a vaccine?” said a teacher who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. 

Abeigon confirmed that teachers must have documented medical conditions or approved leave to be exempt from returning. But he said schools may consider other situations, such as teachers who cannot find child care. 

“It’s a national pandemic,” he said Saturday. “There has to be flexibility.”

In August, the teachers union called on the district to postpone in-person learning, citing family and teacher fears about returning to schools. But now the union is telling teachers to prepare to go back. While Abeigon said he is concerned about the rising cases and is reviewing the numbers daily, he also noted the limited number of school outbreaks in New Jersey.

“There are thousands of schools in this state that are open right now,” he told teachers during a virtual meeting Friday. “In the event that the district opens, we will be teaching.”

León has detailed a number of safety precautions that will be in place when schools do reopen. Students will be screened for COVID symptoms on arrival, everyone will be required to wear masks, and classrooms will hold no more than 10 students, each spaced at least 6 feet apart.

Families may request that their children continue with full-time remote learning even after classrooms open, León has said. It’s unclear if that request form will go out Monday along with the teacher survey.

Wilhelmina Holder, an education advocate who is on the district’s school reopening committee, said she believes the district is “still on track” to begin in-person classes next month. However, she said the recent uptick in coronavirus cases is concerning and could force another delay.

In the meantime, the district should focus on convincing families that it is safe to send their children back to school, Holder said. She and others have recommended that the district hold virtual school tours so parents can see the new safety measures that have been put in place.

“Confidence is a big factor here,” she said. “If we open it up, are the people going to come?”

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