Newark prepares take-home assignments for students in case of coronavirus closures

If the coronavirus forces Newark schools to close, students will have thick homework packets to keep them busy.

The Newark school district has created 15 days of take-home assignments in each subject for every grade level, according to a district memo and a sample packet obtained by Chalkbeat. The district will give students paper copies of the “school closure packets” and will post electronic versions online, the message said.

As the coronavirus spreads across the United States and New Jersey, which now has 29 apparent cases and one death, districts are rushing to prepare for possible long-term school closures. On Thursday evening, officials in Bergen County said they will close all public schools in the county, which collectively enroll nearly 170,000 students. The county has faced the state’s largest outbreak, with 13 people testing positive for the virus.

Across New Jersey, more than 180 districts held staff trainings this week to review plans for the coronavirus, according to the state education department, and every district must submit its plans for how it will educate students at home if the virus forces prolonged school closures.

To date, no one from Newark has tested positive for the virus and no district schools have had to close. But the district is still required to develop contingency plans, which it shared with school employees during a previously scheduled staff training on Wednesday.

The cover of a work packet for students that Newark created in case schools are forced to close.

Teachers received copies of the district-made work packets, which include assignments in math, reading, science, social studies, art, physical education, and world languages. A second-grade packet viewed by Chalkbeat contained 109 pages filled with activities, readings, writing prompts, and assignments for students to complete using their textbooks.

Teachers were told to review the packets and consider whether any changes are needed, including for students with disabilities, according to the district memo. Principals must approve changes or additions that teachers suggest.

“We believe that teachers are best suited to ensure that the instructional plans are aligned with the students’ needs,” said the memo, which school leaders read to staff members during the training.

While some districts say they will offer online lessons if students cannot come to school, virtual learning poses major challenges for many districts, particularly in low-income and rural communities. Many families lack the necessary technology at home, and districts may not have the infrastructure in place to deliver online instruction.

About 20% of Newark households lack smartphones or computers and a third do not have internet access, according to census data. It’s unclear whether the district will provide laptops and internet hotspots to students who need them.

Other districts, including Jersey City, also plan to send home assignment packets in the event of school closures, as do some charter schools, such as People’s Prep, a Newark high school that cancelled classes this week because of coronavirus concerns. In Jersey City, the district has issued Chromebook laptops to more than 70% of students and has more than 2,000 internet hotspots available that students could use if they have to work from home, the superintendent told the Jersey Journal.

Questions remain about Newark’s school-closure plans, including how Newark will meet the state’s requirement that districts continue to provide special-education services to students with disabilities and daily meals to eligible students if schools must close.

A Newark Public Schools spokeswoman has not responded to questions Chalkbeat has sent over the past week about the district’s coronavirus response.

Beyond a letter that Superintendent Roger León sent to families and district employees on March 5, the district has provided little public information about its response to the virus, which prompted New Jersey to declare a state of emergency this week and cancel all large gatherings. 

By contrast, other districts have provided regular updates through emails and robocalls. Paterson Public Schools created a special coronavirus webpage complete with video messages from the superintendent and detailed information about the district’s closure plan.

Behind the scenes, Newark has been taking steps to prepare for the virus, according to the district memo. District officials have been in regular contact with the city and state health departments, and Newark’s health director recently gave presentations to school principals and nurses. 

A specially trained team is scheduled to conduct “intense cleaning at all schools on a regular basis,” while school custodians will continue wiping down high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs and handrails, the memo said. The district is also using a special device to coat surfaces with a disinfectant. 

Signs that the district is gearing up for the virus, even as learning continues, were evident in schools across Newark this week, said John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union.

“Everywhere I went, I saw cleaning going on, training going on, teaching going on,” said Abeigon, who said he visited 10 schools this week. 

“The plan is to be prepared,” he added. “Right now, that’s all we can do.”