Newark’s largest charter school switches back to remote learning a week after reopening

A school building has a blue sign on the top left corner that reads North Star in white lettering with a white star shape between the two words.
Just a week after reopening classrooms, North Star Academy returned to all-remote due to the local surge in coronavirus cases. (David Handschuh for Chalkbeat)

Just over a week after bringing some students back into classrooms, Newark’s largest charter school network is reverting to fully online learning due to the recent surge in local coronavirus cases.

North Star Academy had resumed in-person classes on Oct. 19, after beginning the year remotely, and about half of the network’s roughly 5,700 students had opted to return to campus part-time. But following a steep rise in virus cases statewide and in Newark, the network told families Tuesday that, effective immediately, all students must go back to virtual learning for at least two weeks.

Now was supposed to be the time when hundreds of New Jersey school districts that have put off in-person learning started to welcome students back into classrooms. Instead, a growing number of districts are choosing to continue remote learning until early next year. Among them are the Newark school system and KIPP New Jersey, the city’s second largest charter school network.

North Star Academy’s 14 Newark schools were among the few in the city that did try opening their doors this fall. For now, though, that short-lived effort has come to a halt. The network is tentatively planning to try in-person learning again on Nov. 10, but that will depend on whether the latest wave of coronavirus infections begins to subside. 

“We are committed to the health and safety of our community as our number one concern and hope that the actions being taken across the Newark community to stop the spread of the virus will make an impact,” North Star spokesperson Barbara Martinez said in a statement.

She added that community transmission rates were a “major factor” in the network’s decision to pause in-person learning — and will help determine whether it can resume.

New Jersey has faced an alarming rise in virus cases in recent weeks. Wednesday marked the state’s 11th straight day of more than 1,000 new reported cases — a benchmark the state hasn’t reached since May.

Newark is also battling a virus resurgence, ending a steep decline in cases from their peak this spring. On Sunday, the city’s three-day test positivity rate exceeded 11% — more than double the statewide rate during that period — and an average of 150 new daily cases have been reported this week. In response, the city has started reinstating restrictions on businesses.

The uptick led the Newark school district, which educates more than 36,000 students, to push back the start of in-person learning from November to Jan. 25. On Tuesday, Superintendent Roger León said the current spread of the virus was causing him to question whether classrooms will be able to reopen early next year.

“I’m very concerned about January, today, given these numbers,” he said at a school board meeting.

KIPP New Jersey, which enrolls nearly 4,800 Newark students, also decided this month to keep its classrooms closed through January instead of reopening this fall.

Other Newark charter schools are taking a similarly cautious approach. Great Oaks Legacy, the city’s third largest group of charter schools, started bringing pre-kindergarten students back for in-person classes this week. But all other students will continue with online classes, officials said.

The network has allowed a limited number of students to come into its buildings to do their online work under staff supervision. It will expand these “learning hubs” over the coming months, officials added.

The city of Newark and another charter school operator, the BRICK Education Network, have also opened remote learning centers. While the sites don’t offer in-person instruction, they provide students with a safe work space and Wi-Fi access — and working families with free child care.

While experts continue to debate the health risks of reopening schools during the pandemic, most agree that the risks rise considerably in areas with high rates of community spread, as in Newark. Yet many parents, students, and educators say they are eager to return to classrooms when it’s safe, and are worried about the academic and mental health consequences of prolonged remote learning.

“Finally seeing our students in person last week brought us incredible joy,” said Martinez, the North Star spokesperson, “and we are proud of the amazing work of our teachers and staff to reimagine safe in-person schooling under COVID-19.”

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