Newark families can choose whether students attend school in person or remotely

Three masked elementary students sit behind clear shields placed on widely separated desks in a classroom with a portable air-conditioning unit. The blackboard has a “Math Word Wall” and a space with “Noun Verb Adverb Adjective”  written, as well as the class schedule.
The Newark school district said Wednesday that schools will reopen in September with new safety measures in place, including mandatory face masks and social distancing. A classroom at Thirteenth Avenue School followed those protocols during in-person summer school this month. (Courtesy of Thirteenth Avenue School)

Newark families can choose whether their children will attend class in person or remotely when school starts Sept. 8, according to a newly released district plan.

Parents have just over two weeks to make their decision, which may be binding for as long as the district offers both options, according to a letter sent to families Wednesday.

Newark’s reopening roadmap, which the district said is subject to change, describes safety measures schools will put in place to reduce the risk of coronavirus infections among employees and students who opt for in-person learning.

The measures, which are based on state and federal guidelines, include mandatory virus tests for employees, daily symptom and temperature checks for students and staff members, mandatory face masks, and desks spaced 6 feet apart. Students will stay in small groups during the school day and eat bagged lunches at their desks, and no in-person assemblies will be allowed.

“I want to applaud everyone before this school year begins,” Superintendent Roger León said in an introductory note to the plan, released late Wednesday, “because this new normal will not be easy, but will be necessary.”

Newark’s plan for a mix of in-person and virtual learning comes as a growing number of districts nationwide are opting to start the school year fully online, and some New Jersey lawmakers and teachers unions are pushing to keep school buildings closed while the coronavirus continues to spread.

Here are some other highlights from the reopening plan for New Jersey’s largest school district:

  • All employees must submit negative COVID-19 test results before reporting to work. The district is also considering testing students.
  • Staff break rooms will be closed and water fountains turned off; staff and students must bring their own water.
  • Hand sanitizer will be available throughout schools, and custodians will disinfect “high contact surfaces” such as desks, doorknobs, and light switches.
  • Teachers and students will be expected to help with sanitation: they “shall wipe down any community or high-touch areas after each class.”
  • Recess times will be staggered and students will remain in small groups.
  • Physical education classes will focus on “individual pursuits” rather than team sports, and students will not share equipment.
  • Schools will use various strategies to help students cope with the stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic. Those will include counseling sessions and meditation and mindfulness exercises, “when possible.”
  • Because students likely lost ground academically during three months of remote learning this spring, the district will offer Saturday school and tutoring sessions to “minimize and mitigate” learning loss.

While the 25-page document provides much information that families and employees have anxiously awaited as the school year approaches, it leaves some questions unanswered.

For instance, it does not specify whether teachers can request to work remotely and, if so, whether they must show that their age or preexisting medical conditions put them at elevated risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

The guidance says families who do not want their children to return to classrooms must sign an all-remote learning consent form by Aug. 14. However, it does not provide details about what remote learning will entail. For instance, it is unclear whether teachers will be required to hold live classes by video or if students will watch pre-recorded lessons and work on virtual assignments independently.

Families who choose remote learning must “follow the established daily learning schedule” and make sure students participate in “mandated educational activities,” the plan says, without providing details.

The reopening plan suggests the district will offer three learning models, including one where students alternate between in-person and remote learning. (Newark Public Schools)

The plan suggests that the district will offer three learning models: fully remote, fully in-person, or a mix of both. The third option would have students alternate between in-person and virtual classes each day, but the plan does not say which students would be on an alternating schedule or whether families can select that option. León’s note said schools will share “additional guidance” about scheduling options after principals return in early August.

One reason for the lack of clarity may be that scheduling will largely depend on how many families opt to keep their children home this fall. If many families choose the fully remote option, schools may be able to bring the remaining students into classrooms every day and still maintain social distance. But if more families request in-person learning, schools might need to bring students in on alternating days in order to keep them 6 feet apart.

In a message to members Thursday, the Newark Teachers Union acknowledged that the plan is “broad in places,” adding that “staff members and students will require much more specifics.”

“Each school (under state guidelines) must have their own plans and ‘Pandemic Response Team,’” the message says, “so expect to see much more in the coming weeks.”

The choice of in-person or remote learning may not be entirely up to families. Some students, including those who are medically fragile or immunocompromised, will be advised to stay home, León said recently during an online event with the mayor. 

Also, most of the roughly 6,000 students who rely on public transportation because they live 2 miles or more from their school will now learn remotely, according to the Newark Teachers Union. (The plan says the district will still provide school buses to students who require them, typically because they have disabilities. Those students will wear masks on the buses and sit one per row.)

Between students who are recommended to learn remotely and families who choose to, only about one-third of the district’s 38,000 students are expected to attend class in person, according to the union.

“The overwhelming majority will be at home,” NTU President John Abeigon said during an online meeting with members last week. “They will not be in schools.”

It remains to be seen whether the plan will ease the minds of teachers and parents who have raised alarms about reopening schools amid the ongoing pandemic. 

For instance, some have questioned whether students will be able to keep on face masks and stay physically separated from their classmates, while others worry that poor air circulation in some schools will increase the risk of airborne infections.

News that the district had to temporarily close an in-person summer school site after an employee tested positive for the virus stoked some people’s fears, while others said the district handled the situation well.

“If we can’t go to a movie cinema or the theater,” one teacher wrote in a Chalkbeat survey, “why are we rushing back to school?”

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