Newark extends remote learning through January, keeping classrooms closed for several more months

A student wearing headphones works on a laptop computer during a special education classroom exercise.
Newark students will continue learning remotely through at least Jan. 25, the district said Monday evening. (Nathan W. Armes for Chalkbeat)

Newark students will continue learning from home through at least Jan. 25, the state’s largest school district said Monday evening.

The decision to extend remote learning for several more months comes amid a statewide uptick in coronavirus cases. Newark has also seen a steep rise in cases, which the mayor has called the “second wave” of the pandemic.

“We are in a 2nd surge of COVID-19, which is a very serious health issue in our state and across the country,” Newark school board President Josephine Garcia said in a statement Monday evening. “We the Board of Education will always prioritize the health and safety of our students, staff and community.”

The district had tentatively planned to resume in-person learning next month, and teachers were told last week that they would begin setting up their classrooms on Nov. 2. The abrupt decision marks the second time Newark has delayed in-person learning, which was originally scheduled to begin in September.

The latest delay means that Newark Public Schools’ more than 36,000 students will have spent at least 10 months out of classrooms. Experts warn that prolonged remote learning could set back some students’ academic progress and deprive them of the social benefits and services that schools typically provide.

Though coronavirus infections have been picking up statewide since last month, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday that most of the new cases were not originating in schools. Nearly 500 New Jersey districts started the school year with at least some in-person learning. So far, the state has only seen 22 COVID-19 outbreaks in schools.

New cases of the virus have also been rising steadily in Newark. The city’s COVID test positivity rate was 7.4% last week, Mayor Ras Baraka said Friday, citing a three-day average. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that communities with a 14-day test positivity rate of 5% to 8% face a moderate risk of in-school virus transmission. 

“At the end of the day, this is too high,” Baraka said Monday. “We are in the second wave.”

“I have confidence that we get right information, the right data, the superintendent’s going to make the right decisions,” he added during his daily coronavirus briefing Monday evening, shortly before the district informed parents that school buildings would remain closed.

A couple of other districts — Paterson Public Schools and KIPP New Jersey, which operates 15 Newark charter schools — recently extended remote learning through January, citing the ongoing pandemic.

On Monday evening, the Newark school district posted a brief notice on its website saying that all-remote learning will continue through late January, but offered no explanation.

Superintendent Roger León emailed staff members at 6:20 p.m. with the news.

“Given all of the factors and guidance regarding this global pandemic, we will extend remote instruction until after the start of the new year,” he wrote. “While the future may consist of factors beyond our control, our goal is to begin in-person (hybrid model) instruction for students on Monday, January 25, 2021.”

Teachers must visit their schools twice before winter break to make sure they are set up for in-person learning, the email said. Staffers must then be retested for the coronavirus during the first week of January, and begin reporting to schools Jan. 19.

“The next few days and months are intended to build confidence in our healthy and safe return to the schools,” León added.

He told district employees the same thing in September, insisting that school buildings would reopen at the start of the second marking period.

“We will build confidence with you, and you will build confidence with parents,” he said during a Sept. 1 online meeting, “and we will be ready to return in November.”

In recent weeks, some teachers said they were ready to welcome students back to school. But others expressed fear about returning to classrooms while the coronavirus raged on. 

Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon (Newark Teachers Union)

Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon said Saturday that teachers would return to their classrooms next month if the district went through with its plan to bring groups of students in for two days of in-person learning per week. Yet he also called the recent increase in infections “a major concern,” and said the district had to ensure that students and employees could safely return to schools.

After the district on Monday once again postponed in-person instruction, Abeigon turned his attention to remote teaching. He said teachers need more support from their schools to make it work.

“No teacher, especially new teachers, were prepared or trained for this,” he said in a statement. “If we are to improve our remote teaching, district administrators need to take their boots off our necks and help us instead of applying even more pressure [than] we are already under.”

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