Just before 9 a.m. on the first day of school, Principal Cidi Brown took note of the students facing her. 

Ranging from third to fifth grade, most wore navy-blue polo shirts emblazoned with the University Heights Charter School logo. Some fidgeted while others sat gravely still. All in all, they looked like children do every September when summer vanishes and homework reappears.

Yet this first-day assembly was different. The principal sat in her office, staring into a computer screen. And her students, seated next to their parents and grandparents, looked back at her from living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across Newark.

“Welcome to University Heights in the COVID era,” Brown said over video chat. “This time is unprecedented and I’m going to ask at the onset…” She paused while a few people muted themselves. “I’m going to ask at the onset that you guys be patient with us.”

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Cidi Brown, principal of University Heights’ elementary school, welcomed students back to virtual school in September.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The small charter school network, encompassing three schools in the city’s Central Ward, had planned to reopen classrooms in September. But after coronavirus cases ticked up late in the summer, University Heights’ leadership decided to start classes virtually.

Now, they were pinning their hopes on students returning to classrooms in November — though even that delayed start was clouded by uncertainty.

As the virus surged this fall, schools nationwide were trapped in a similar bind. Officials feared the potential health risks of opening schools and knew many families and teachers might refuse to return. But they also were painfully aware of the limitations of remote learning — students without a quiet place to study, families without internet access, teachers struggling to reach students virtually. Even with improvements to online classes this fall, many educators worried that the longer students remained at home, the further behind they would slip.

On top of all that, University Heights faced an existential threat. The state had placed it on probation the previous year due to poor performance. Now, Brown and a cadre of new leaders were trying to overhaul the troubled network during a pandemic that was testing schools and families like nothing they’d experienced before.

But on that September morning, Brown didn’t dwell on the steep road ahead. She cheerfully introduced herself and her new teachers before dismissing students to their video classes.

Then parents’ anxious questions came flooding in.

Many needed help logging into Zoom, the videoconferencing tool that teachers had used only sporadically last spring. Other families did not have enough computers for their children — or any at all.

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“Good morning,” one mother said, explaining that her third-grade twins had to access Zoom on her iPhone. “So how will that work?”

After loaning out its existing laptops, the network had ordered new Chromebooks this summer for each of its roughly 850 students. But due to overwhelming demand nationwide, the laptops weren’t expected to arrive until the end of September.

“Everyone in the country is looking for laptops,” Brown said, “so we’re in line with everyone else.”

About an hour into the meeting, well after classes had started, a child’s voice rang out. 

“My mom is not here,” the girl said, explaining that she was in third grade and new to the school. “I don’t know what class am I in.”

She was one of a few students that morning who said they were home alone or with siblings while their parents worked. The school secretary sent the girl the class Zoom link. But 45 minutes later, she returned, explaining that she hadn’t been able to log in.

“I’ve been waiting for a long, long time and I didn’t know what to do,” the girl said, sounding frightened. “I think my class is already over.”

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In a soothing voice, Brown explained that her class had not ended.

“You’re going to be fine,” she said. “I promise.”

Teaching from afar

That morning, teacher Kamilia Mackey was seated in her living room — her classroom for the foreseeable future. 

Behind her was a poster she decorated, with “Ms. Mackey’s Virtual Class” spelled out in green letters. Nearby was her “fur baby,” Diva, the puppy she purchased to keep her company during quarantine. And in front of her was an open laptop.

Kamilia Mackey teaches third grade at University Heights. (Courtesy of Kamilia Mackey)

A Newark native, Mackey was beginning her seventh year at University Heights. Yet she still felt jittery: How would she build rapport with students through Zoom? 

She tried not to focus on that as she asked her new third graders to share their names and adjectives with the same letter. A curly-haired girl said, “elastic Emilie.”

“You go girl!” Mackey replied over video.

Before she called on the next student, she reminded the class of the new rules. They would become her mantra: “Mute your mics. Turn your cameras on.” 

Mackey had watched University Heights stumble. Founded 14 years ago with the help of a local church, the schools’ academic performance withered in recent years. In 2019, fewer than one in four University Heights students met state expectations on the annual English tests, and just one in six did so in math. When state officials visited two of the three campuses that year, they observed disengaged students and substitute teachers leading many classes.

After the network made staffing changes, the state this February allowed the schools to keep operating. But they remain on probation and must make major improvements to stay open.

This summer, the board of trustees chose new leaders to guide that work. They hired Christy Oliver-Hawley, most recently a senior official in the Jersey City school system, to become the network’s chief administrator. And they replaced all three principals, putting Brown in charge of the elementary school. 

A veteran educator from South Carolina with experience improving low-performing schools, Brown’s work day stretches from 7:30 a.m. until late in the evening. The pandemic amplified her feeling of urgency.

“COVID kind of just punched everybody in the face,” she said, “and was like, ‘I’m here. You got to get this together.’”

Cidi Brown became principal of University Heights’ elementary school this summer. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

Mackey noticed changes under the new leadership. Unlike the spring, when teachers cobbled together virtual lessons, the network this fall put in a place a new online platform, new textbooks, and a set schedule of daily video classes. Suddenly, Mackey felt hopeful.

“I’m excited about virtual learning,” she said after class that first day. “I’m eager to learn these new things.”

But despite her enthusiasm, remote teaching was tough. One morning a couple weeks later, Mackey summoned her students back from a 10-minute break to begin math class.

“Alright boys and girls, brain break is now over,” she said through Zoom. “You should be turning on your video.”

Mackey taught a math lesson on Sept. 24.

Mackey displayed an array of grinning emojis on her screen and asked students to write the rows and columns as a multiplication equation. Most students got to work, jotting answers in their notebooks. But one boy was distracted by siblings, yelling at them to give back his erasers. Another unmuted himself to ask for help: “My question is: What are we doing?” Other students were harder to track — they sat off screen or turned off their cameras.

Mackey asked a boy to write on her shared screen as if it were a whiteboard. But he didn’t know how to use Zoom’s drawing tool, so she scrapped the idea and promised to explain the feature later. 

When students held up their notebooks, many of their answers were wrong. Material that rarely caused problems in the classroom was tripping up students remotely.

“I think we’re going to have to take notes on the same information until it starts to stick,” she told the class.

Virtual school was wearing on Mackey. Some students still lacked laptops or Wi-Fi, causing them to miss class. About a third of her students were absent the first day of class; by late October, daily attendance had climbed but still hovered around 85%.

Teaching online wasn’t the same. She couldn’t peer over her students’ shoulders to inspect their work or point to reference charts on the wall. And it was more difficult to forge bonds with children or sense when they were stuck.

“I know if we were in the classroom, I would feel less frustrated,” she said the day after that math lesson. “There’s only so much I can do with the distance in between us.”

Home life, disrupted

When University Heights emptied its school buildings in March, Stacey Ragin braced for her two sons to learn from home for a few weeks.

Those few weeks turned into the rest of the school year. And now here they were, seven months later, starting a new school year with Stacy, her second-grader, on a laptop in the dining room and Nicholas, her third-grader, on Zoom in the attic.

Still, the family was making do. Ragin’s mother, who lives with the family on a quiet block in the South Ward, helped keep an eye on the boys. Stacy was slowly learning to type. And when it was time for class, Nicholas cheerily set off for the “treetop,” their name for the attic, announcing, “OK, I’m going to work.”

Yet there was no denying that remote learning had disrupted Ragin’s life. A parent liaison for a youth development program, she now did work on her phone during the day so Nicholas could use her laptop for class. With everyone online, the family had to upgrade their internet plan. And Ragin was taking work calls on the back deck or in the bathroom to avoid interrupting her sons’ lessons.

“My life is their life now,” Ragin said a few weeks into the school year. “That’s it.”

Stacey Ragin with her sons, Nicholas and Stacy. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

On the other end of town, Tracy Miles had made her own concessions to remote learning.

She now spent her days seated a few feet from Makaila, the granddaughter she helps care for, making sure she stays on task during her online lessons. Makaila was new to University Heights and had been placed in Mackey’s class. 

A former classroom aide, Miles was impressed by Mackey’s patience and dedication. And Mackey appreciated how Miles occasionally popped on screen to ask questions — something many students were reluctant to do over Zoom.

Yet Miles’ rowhouse in the North Ward was hardly equipped for online learning. The family doesn’t have internet or a computer, so Makaila attended Zoom class on Miles’ phone. And without a printer, Miles was forced to write out Makaila’s homework assignments by hand. After her granddaughter completed them, Miles would snap a photo and send it to Mackey. She just hoped the school’s promised shipment of laptops would arrive soon.

“Patience, that’s all I can say,” she said one afternoon. “If you don’t have patience, it’s not going to work.”

For her part, Makaila didn’t mind remote learning. With her University Heights uniform shirt and thin braids, she could be seen smiling on Zoom, raising her hand, and diligently taking notes with her green pencil. Yet when asked one October afternoon how she’ll feel when she could finally step foot in her school, she didn’t hesitate.

“Happy,” she said. “Because I never met my other teachers.”

When school reopened, she’d be able to see her classroom, walk the hallways, and visit the cafeteria, Makaila said. Best of all, she’d meet new people.

“I never made friends,” she added. “But one day I will.”

Tracy Miles with her granddaughter, Makaila. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

Readying to return

That day seemed to be fast approaching.

University Heights had set Nov. 9 as the tentative date to begin “hybrid” learning. Students would come into classrooms two days a week and learn from home three days, while families could continue full-time remote learning if they chose.

In mid-October, the network surveyed families and staffers about their willingness to return to school. Meanwhile, officials got ready for in-person learning: They started installing Plexiglass barriers and hired an extra nurse who would take temperatures when students arrived. Children were already assigned to 10-person cohorts that would venture into school on the same days — principals had made those lists before the first attempted reopening in September.

Oliver-Hawley, the network head who started in July, was leading the charge. A seasoned public-school administrator who grew up in Jersey City and lived in Newark for a decade, she had felt called to take the job leading University Heights despite the formidable task of turning around schools during a pandemic. 

“That’s where you find out what you’re made of,” she said.

Now, about a month into the school year, she believed the network’s teachers — many of them newly hired — were delivering quality remote instruction. Yet she still was eager for students to return.

“I know with the numbers we have to be very careful, but we’re just hoping we can get our babies in for hybrid learning as soon as possible,” she said as October began. “There’s nothing like in-person learning.”

Christy Oliver-Hawley is University Heights’ new CEO and head of schools. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

At the same time, the network had an online learning breakthrough.

In July, it had paid about $200,000 for Chromebook laptops for all students, which were due to arrive by the start of classes. But, blaming a backlog, the supplier pushed back the arrival date to December. Network officials and their supporters lobbied the supplier, and it agreed to fast track the shipment. Finally, in mid-October, the laptops were ready to distribute.

On a warm autumn afternoon, third-grade families trickled into the elementary school gym to pick up their new devices. Among them was Corey Sweat, who had been holding out for holiday sales to buy a new home computer. Now, she had a Chromebook to bring her daughter.

“I can’t wait to get home,” she said, anticipating her daughter’s excitement. “She’s been saying, ‘Oh mommy, what time are you coming?”

Later that day came Nitisha Grimes, the parent who had asked during the virtual assembly how her twins would manage virtual school on her iPhone. Now, she cradled her toddler son while a staff member helped her daughter, Nakiayh, try out two Chromebooks — one for her and one for her twin sister, Laniayh. A month into the school year, Grimes felt like her daughters finally were equipped for remote learning.

“Now they’re not going to be behind,” she said.

A staff member helps third-grader Nakiayh Grimes set up her new laptop. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

Decision day

As reopening day approached, everyone at University Heights was studying “the numbers.” They weren’t good.

In the spring, the coronavirus had slammed into Newark. With a population that is primarily Black and Hispanic and a poverty rate in 2017 that was nearly three times the state average, the city was especially vulnerable to the virus. At the pandemic’s peak, Newark averaged about 300 new COVID-19 cases per day. By the end of April, more than 400 Newark residents had died.

After strictly enforcing distancing rules, the city managed to tame the virus. On July 16, Mayor Ras Baraka could finally celebrate a day without any new cases or deaths. Yet as summer gave way to fall, the virus launched a new offensive. Just a few days after University Heights handed out laptops, Baraka said the city now was averaging more than 60 new daily cases.

“We are officially in the second wave,” he said during an online briefing on Monday, Oct. 19.

Some limited data has suggested that virus cases have not spiked when classrooms reopen. And in New Jersey, where hundreds of districts began the school year with some in-person learning, just over 20 school-based outbreaks had been reported by mid-October. 

But the risk of in-school transmission rises as the virus spreads in the surrounding community, as it was doing in Newark and across New Jersey. Shortly after Baraka gave his briefing that Monday, the Newark school district announced that its more than 60 schools would remain closed through January.

Now, University Heights had to decide whether to proceed with its hybrid plan or pull the plug. 

Oliver-Hawley looked at the results of that month’s survey. About 70% of families said they preferred to stay fully remote, and 30% of teachers said they were at high risk for illness and wouldn’t return. Fortunately, most students now had laptops and online textbooks.

Yet she had reason to worry about keeping students home. Researchers project that some students could lose the equivalent of several months of learning due to the school closures. That’s in addition to the social and emotional strain of being separated from peers for the better part of a year.

So she prayed for guidance, then consulted with the board of trustees. On Oct. 21, they made their decision: Classrooms would not reopen the following month. Instead, students would continue learning remotely at least through the new year.

“Of course we were looking forward to seeing our scholars in person,” Oliver-Hawley said afterwards. “But we were also trying as best we could to guarantee their health and safety.”

She added that diagnostic tests showed a slight improvement in student scores this fall.

A University Heights classroom sat empty in late October. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

When Stacey Ragin heard the news, she welcomed it.

Yes, remote learning had rearranged her life. But she was pleased with her boys’ online classes and their academic progress. More to the point, the virus had shaken her family. She saw it infect her brother and his wife, and fill her son with dread last spring whenever she left the house. She had watched lines of cars snake around the local funeral parlor and heard the wailing of sirens as ambulances tore through her neighborhood.

“When you see those types of things, it changes everything,” she said. 

Tracy Miles also agreed with the decision. She knew people who had died from COVID-19 and was not willing to risk sending her granddaughter back to school until a vaccine was available. 

In the meantime, she was happy with the quality of online instruction. Yet technology remained a challenge. The school had given Makaila a laptop, but because the family did not have internet access, the laptop went unused. By mid-November, the school had yet to provide the Wi-Fi hotspot it long ago promised.

“That’s the only thing I’m mad about,” Miles said. “They should get that together.” (The school said it will give Miles a hotspot this week.)

Principal Brown wasn’t surprised that classroom learning had to be postponed, yet again. 

She already had plans to keep students motivated, with virtual celebrations of students’ grades and artistic creations scheduled for the coming weeks. The school would also provide tutoring, and perhaps mentoring, to students who needed extra help. Yet she couldn’t ignore the academic and psychological toll that the pandemic was likely to take on all students, including her own.

“It may be years before we get them caught up to where they need to be,” she said earlier this fall. “But we’re going to do our best to give the scholars all we can.”

Mackey was grateful that the leadership had delayed reopening, which signaled to her their concern for everyone’s safety. But still, she worried about her students’ learning. Diagnostic tests had shown that many of her third-graders started the year below grade level, and they continued to pick up new material more slowly online than they would in person.

“It was a sigh of relief,” she said after remote learning was extended. “But I’m still unhappy.”

The Friday morning after the board made its decision, Mackey’s students appeared as usual in her Zoom classroom. As they took turns greeting one another, Mackey asked one girl to shift her camera so it showed her face. After a boy spoke, she reminded him, “OK, mute your mic, baby.”

Then Mackey explained that morning’s game, a scavenger hunt where students would find different colored objects in their homes. The boy who led the game called out colors — pink, blue, white, black — and his classmates held up notebooks, stuffed animals, T-shirts, a phone charger.

The boy was wearing a headset with an attached microphone. As the game ended, he offered an apology.

“I’m sorry for all the noise in my headphones,” he said from what looked like his living room. “Me and my sister are both in class.”