Newark summer school site was temporarily closed due to coronavirus case

In-person classes at First Avenue School were temporarily suspended this month after someone at the school tested positive for the coronavirus. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

Newark temporarily shut down a summer school site earlier this month after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus, according to parents and a union official.

The employee works at First Avenue School, one of two pilot sites where the Newark school district is enforcing new safety measures as it resumes in-person learning nearly four months after classrooms closed nationwide due to the pandemic.

But the incident appears to have exposed a gap in those protocols: The employee was allowed to start working at the summer program before receiving her COVID-19 test results, according to the Newark Teachers Union. She received the positive test result after working in the building July 6, the first day of summer school, the union said.

The school was shut down for disinfecting the next day. A review of surveillance footage at the school showed that the employee did not interact with any teachers or students, the union said. Once the building was cleaned and families and staffers were informed of the incident, the site was reopened the same week, parents and the union said.

The temporary shutdown highlights the inevitable challenges that will arise as Newark and districts across the country start to reopen school buildings even as the virus continues to spread in many communities. The incident also shows that the district is prepared to respond immediately if anyone at a school is infected with the virus, said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon.

“She was quarantined, the building was shut down, everything was explained to the parents and the staff,” he said. “The protocols worked.”

Abeigon said the employee at First Avenue School had taken the test at least a week prior to working at the summer program, but a delay at the testing site held up her results. Now, employees will not be allowed to work inside reopened schools until their test results come back negative, he said.

“From now on, it’s not enough to document that you’ve been tested; you have to have a letter stating that you’re negative,” he said. “We caught the issue and corrected it.”

The majority of Newark students are taking online classes this summer. The district limited the in-person classes to a small number of teachers and families who volunteered to participate, including about 60 students at First Avenue.

In a statement, spokesperson Nancy Deering said the district is “proud of its students, parents, and staff” at the two in-person summer sites.

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“While we are in unchartered waters, protocols are in place to make the return to in-person instruction a healthy and safe experience as this one in Newark,” she said.

The incident underscores a point some medical experts make about the risks of reopening schools amid the pandemic: While evidence suggests that younger children are less likely to spread the virus than adults or become seriously ill from COVID-19, schools also create opportunities for adults to transmit the virus to one another. And many teachers and other school employees are older adults or have underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of falling seriously ill if they are infected.

“The greatest risk to teachers is not children — it’s other adults,” said Dr. Kenneth Alexander, chief of infectious disease at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando, in an interview earlier this month. (Last week, a large new study was published showing that children ages 10 to 19 appear to spread the virus at least as well as adults do.)

Students at Newark’s in-person summer school sites undergo daily symptom screenings and temperature checks before entering. (Newark Public Schools)

To mitigate those risks, Newark has put in place strict safety protocols at the in-person summer programs — the first district schools to reopen classrooms since they were closed in mid-March. All staff members are tested for the virus, students undergo a multi-step entry process that includes a symptom check and hand sanitizing, and everyone is instructed to wear a mask and keep their distance from others inside the schools.

“The health and safety of all of our students and staff is in fact the top priority,” Superintendent Roger León said last week, adding that the idea behind the in-person summer school sites was “to begin small, assess it, monitor it” before reopening classrooms district-wide in September. 

On Monday, several parents and employees at First Avenue School said they felt confident in the safety measures the district has established, which are based on state guidelines. They added that the district responded swiftly and appropriately when the employee tested positive for the virus.

“They got everybody out fast,” said Bionett Roman, whose third-grader attends the summer program. “If they keep doing the safety measures, I think it’s fine.”

Karen, the mother of a fourth-grader at the site who declined to give her last name, said she was not alarmed by the temporary shutdown, which she expects might happen again as more people return to schools.

“It’s going to happen even when they open schools in September,” she said. “It’s a possibility you’re going to have to close schools back down again.”

But other Newark parents and teachers have expressed fear and even anger as the district begins reopening schools. Dozens of people who responded to a Chalkbeat survey about returning to classrooms during the pandemic said they believe it is too risky and that it will be hard for schools to enforce the new safety measures, which include requiring students to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart.

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The temporary shutdown of First Avenue School “gave everyone pause,” said an educator at a different school who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation. While it wasn’t surprising that someone had tested positive for the virus, what most concerned her is that the district did not provide information about the incident to staffers at other schools.

“The teachers haven’t heard anything official — it’s all unofficial that we’ve heard through colleagues,” she said. “It’s not like there was a statement: ‘This is what happened, this is what we did, so we can put your mind at ease.’”

The educator said she wants to hear more from the district about how it will handle similar situations this September if thousands more students and staffers return to schools. She’s also waiting to learn whether teachers will be able to request to work remotely this fall, which she hopes to do because she helps care for her father, who has cancer and is at elevated risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19.

“Hopefully that wouldn’t cost me my job,” she said. “But my family’s health is more important than any job.”

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