School officials say Newark will move to mostly virtual learning by April 6

Newark is planning to vastly expand online learning in a few weeks, school officials said Thursday during their first public comments on the widening coronavirus crisis at Thursday’s virtual board meeting.

When students were first sent home two weeks ago, the district distributed paper packets of classwork to accommodate students with limited technology at home. But teachers have increasingly posted assignments and lessons online, using applications like Google Classroom. 

Now Superintendent Roger León says all coursework will be online by April 6, beginning the next phase of home learning, though a district spokesperson said paper packets will continue to be available for students who need them. But some unanswered questions remain, including how many devices have been handed out and also how the district plans to handle high school graduation.

“On April 6, we will begin what I am calling ‘phase two’ of the learning at home plans, which will be all online,” León said during the meeting. “Schools are reaching out to identify families in need of free online access or technology, or both, and we’ll make sure everyone has what they need.”

After a recent district survey found that 7,000 Newark students lack internet-equipped devices, the district has been loaning laptops to families who need them and making sure they have internet access to facilitate the shift to mostly online learning, León said at the meeting. 

Some school employees have even driven to students’ houses to distribute Chromebooks, the superintendent said. Though asked by board member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas for an exact count, León could not put a number on how many laptops had been given out. 

“It varies by location. Each school is strategically addressing their needs,” he said. “The number is quite fluid.” 

Board members and the superintendent also tried to reassure families and the public during the meeting that they’re taking steps to keep families safe and students learning during this time. 

León and board member Flohisha Johnson recognized that this time might be especially difficult for high school seniors who could miss out on prom and graduation due to school closures. 

“We’re going to push through and make sure you get all you deserve,” Johnson said. “You’re not going unnoticed.”

The superintendent said he hoped the district could “move beyond this and celebrate graduation as originally designed,” but didn’t definitively say whether the events would proceed as normal or be cancelled.

“Let’s keep our fingers crossed,” he said.

Director of Health Services Marguerite Leuze said her team has been communicating with the city health department on a daily basis, and the district has contacted families to provide guidance, including those with students with significant medical issues. School nurses are also helping test Newarkers for coronavirus. She said district employees are continuing to follow updates and guidelines from the state and city health departments as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A district spokesperson told Chalkbeat that some individuals in Newark Public Schools have tested positive for coronavirus and the district has notified relevant parties. The district didn’t provide any more details.

Steve Morlino, executive director of facilities management, said schools are being deep-cleaned, and as the pandemic has escalated, employees have started using N-95 masks. Additionally, school meal sites are continuing to be cleaned.

“Everyone understands the gravity of the situation,” he said.

More than 44,000 meals have been distributed to students through the district’s meal sites since schools were closed, said Tonya McGill, executive director of food services. The sites will continue to serve breakfast and lunch from 9:30 until 11:30 a.m., and any changes will be posted on the district’s website.

District officials made it clear at Thursday’s meeting that the crisis is far from over and schools are closed “until further notice.” New Jersey’s positive coronavirus cases continue to skyrocket. Today, a surge of 1,982 new cases were announced, bringing the statewide total to 8,825. León stressed that students should follow state COVID-19 guidelines and stay at home.

“While we may not be able to predict the future well, we can plan to be able to address it in the best way possible,” León said. “That is what we have done and will continue to do.”