‘Overwhelmed’ Newark high schoolers protest rumored class schedule change

A student works on a laptop computer in a math class at Southeastern High School in Detroit.

After a grueling year for Newark students, winter break finally was in sight, and with it the promise of rest and relief. 

But then high schoolers got wind of a plan that stopped them in their tracks: The district apparently intended to double the periods in their online school day, from four or five to nine. They heard the change would happen this month.

Many teenagers already were drained from nine months of social isolation, online classes, and jobs they’d taken to help keep their families afloat. The sudden schedule change was more than they could bear.

Some students planned to stage a virtual walkout. One Newark Public Schools student started an online petition, which more than 3,200 people had signed as of Friday.

“We NPS students are already overwhelmed with the pandemic and virtual school,” the petition reads. “Our mental health is already being negatively affected and with more classes clustered in a school day it will bring us down.”

During an online forum Monday, Superintendent Roger León suggested that the schedule change is limited to seniors who need to earn additional credits to graduate on time. But students, parents, and teachers say they’ve received conflicting information from their schools and want clarity from the district.

Whatever the outcome, the uproar has underscored a deeper crisis. The stress of remote learning, anxiety about the pandemic and the recession, and uncertainty about their own futures have pushed many teenagers to a breaking point. 

The upheaval is straining students’ mental health and slowing their academic growth, experts warn. Nationwide, schools are reporting higher absenteeism, lower grades, and declining test scores. Newark has not shared academic data this fall, but attendance is down, which could portend classroom challenges.

“When I see my friends, I’m literally watching their dreams be destroyed,” said 12th grader Tara Daye Johnson, explaining that student athletes fear losing college scholarships and students who have jobs worry about failing grades. “We’re just trying to push through.”

School districts have tried to walk a fine line during the crisis, seeking to show grace to students who have endured hardships while still pushing them academically so they don’t fall further behind. In Newark, the district has asked teachers to give live video lessons each day, but it has allowed students who miss class to turn in their work later and still be marked present.

Some Newark high schools also adjusted their schedules. Each school is different, but typical schedules include eight or nine class periods each day. This fall, some schools spread those periods over two days, making each class a little longer but also building in time for wellness activities and teacher office hours. Some also reserved one day a week for students to complete assignments, meet with teachers, and receive tutoring.

Earlier this month, word started spreading that some schools would return to a nine-period class schedule. Panicked students assumed that would mean more daily assignments and less work time during the school day.

“That was kind of a low blow from the district,” said Moses Gbagbe-Sowah, a senior at University High School who learned about the expected change from a teacher.

Even with half as many daily classes, remote learning has worn him out. The video lessons he attends from his bedroom feel less engaging and more exhausting than in-person classes, and the online assignments due each day are overwhelming.

“You see the list going down and you’re like, ‘Wow, I got to finish all that by 11:59,’” he said. “It just feels like a lot more.”

Daye Johnson is also a senior at University High School and the student-body president. Throughout the pandemic, she said, her peers have held down jobs at malls, fast food restaurants, and Amazon distribution centers. One friend of hers has logged into class from her phone while working at a Popeyes chicken restaurant.

“A lot of people’s parents lost their jobs and they have to help pay rent,” she said. “If they don’t work, they don’t eat.”

Switching to nine daily classes would make it nearly impossible for those students to juggle their jobs and schoolwork, she added.

“Some people were looking at that schedule like, ‘I’m just going to drop out,’” she said. “We all came together and were like, ‘This is not happening.’”

Students from across the district posted comments on the petition echoing those concerns.

“I already be struggling with maintaining my school work a job [and] babysitting,” one student wrote. “With having all my classes in one day my grades will drop and I will have to work less hours at work.”

Yolanda Stokes, whose son is a senior at University, shared the revised “remote learning bell schedule” her son received. Dated Dec. 14, it shows nine classes each day instead of the current four to five. When parents learned about the new schedule at a parent-teacher association meeting, they “went ballistic,” she said.

“How dare NPS make this kind of decision without consulting the parents?” she said, adding that the revised schedule could swamp students with work. “You’re about to burn them out where they’re going to check out completely.”

Superintendent León discussed the issue with student leaders last week, according to Daye Johnson, who attended the meeting. This week, University’s principal told students their schedules would not change, students said. 

Teachers at other high schools who heard daily classes might increase said they are still waiting for answers.

At Monday’s forum, León described a much more limited change than what students and teachers have heard. He said only a small number of 12th graders who are behind in credits will get new schedules.

“Some students were like, ‘Oh my goodness, my principal is changing something. It’s impacting everybody,’” he said. “No. It only impacted a few people.”

In an email, district spokeswoman Nancy Deering said there had been no “uniform change” to class schedules, which differ among high schools. She added that the district has taken efforts to ease the burden on students.

“The district is continuously strategizing on how to best support students and staff during these unprecedented times,” she said.

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