Newark charter schools plan to start remotely, postponing in-person classes

Like schools statewide, Great Oaks Legacy Charter School closed its buildings in March. Now, it’s one of several Newark charter schools seeking to keep most students learning remotely for the start of the school year. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

For thousands of Newark charter school students, back to school will mean back to their laptops.

The city’s largest charter school networks are seeking to delay the start of in-person learning, though it remains to be seen whether New Jersey’s governor will permit fully remote schedules. And when classrooms do reopen, students will still spend the bulk of their time learning from home, according to a review of the schools’ plans for reopening amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

North Star Academy, KIPP New Jersey, and Great Oaks Legacy, which collectively enroll about two-thirds of the city’s more than 19,000 charter school students, have asked for state approval to begin with all-remote classes this month before adding some limited in-person instruction in the following weeks, school officials said. Their requests add to a growing list of schools nationwide that plan to start the school year virtually as the coronavirus crisis rages on.

Robert Treat Academy, which had expected to start with a mix of at-home and in-person learning, kicked off the school year Monday with all students learning virtually.

The push to delay in-person learning is partly due to many families’ fear of sending students back to school while the virus continues to spread. It also reflects the earlier start date of most charter schools compared to traditional districts, giving charters less time to prepare their buildings, order protective equipment, and create new safety protocols.

Any delay in reopening classrooms would mark a departure from Gov. Phil Murphy’s decree that all schools must offer at least some in-person learning to families that want it. As the state’s number of new infections ticked up in recent weeks, Murphy has faced mounting pressure — from teachers unions, lawmakers, and families — to let schools start remotely. However, Murphy has not yet changed his stance nor have officials approved requests to start fully remote, leaving some charter schools in limbo as their start dates rapidly approach.

“We’re under the gun in terms of timing,” said New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association President Harry Lee, who sent a letter to the state’s interim education chief Monday asking him to allow charter schools that want to start the year remotely to do so. Politico New Jersey first reported on the letter.

“It seems like a reasonable request,” Lee added. “We’re hoping the department can come back and grant explicit permission.”

A state education department spokesman said Tuesday that districts’ reopening plans are still under review.

Most Newark charter schools expect the majority of students to learn in person no more than two days per week, their reopening plans show, because state guidelines limit how many students can fit in a classroom while remaining 6 feet apart. Those plans contrast sharply with the one released by Newark’s traditional school district, which says students who opt for in-person learning will attend class daily. 

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KIPP New Jersey, which educates nearly 5,000 Newark students, had originally planned to offer a mix of virtual and in-person learning when classes start this month. Now, the network wants all students to learn online until October, when they will start coming into school a couple days a week.

The decision was based partly on a survey that found the majority of families wanted to begin the school year fully online, said Joanna Belcher, the network’s executive director. It also reflected the recent rise in New Jersey’s new daily virus cases and its infection rate, though both numbers are now declining.

The delay of in-person learning will give schools more time to get virtual classes off to a strong start. Belcher said remote learning this fall will include more live lessons on the videochat service Zoom than in the spring, when most students watched recorded videos.

“If all of our kids are remote for the first few weeks,” Belcher said, “we can all focus our effort and energy in getting live instruction right.”

Robert Treat Academy, a small, high-performing charter school network, also decided to delay in-person learning “due to public health concerns regarding the coronavirus,” according to a notice to families. Now, all students will learn online this month before the school begins offering some in-person classes in September. 

Even then, students will only come into school two days a week and will leave by 1 p.m., the plan says. Students whose families opt for fully online learning will be able to watch the classroom lessons by video, said Principal Theresa Adubato, adding that about 30% of the network’s 691 students have selected that option.

“I have every confidence our plans will give our students what they need to continue to learn,” she said, adding that students have “adapted very quickly to remote instruction.”

North Star Academy, which is Newark’s largest charter network with more than 5,000 students, also intends to start the school year fully virtual. It will begin offering some in-person learning “when it has been deemed safe,” the network’s plan says.

After classrooms reopen, students in grades 1-8 will take in-person classes at least twice a week (with kindergarteners and students with special needs likely to get additional class time), while high schoolers will only come into school one day a week. On the other days, elementary and middle school students will watch recorded lessons and complete paper and online assignments, while high schoolers will meet for live Zoom classes.

“We miss our students and can’t wait to see them,” said spokeswoman Barbara Martinez, adding that the network has filed its reopening plans with state and county education officials.

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Great Oaks Legacy Charter School, which educates about 1,600 students in preschool through 12th grade, plans to bring students back to school in waves. 

While most students will start school remotely next week, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students will return to classrooms. Then students in grades 1-5 will start daily in-person learning on Aug. 31, while middle and high school students will alternate between classroom and remote learning. As required by state guidelines, any family can request all-remote learning.

Jocelyn Guzman, who has two children in Great Oaks Legacy schools, said she supports the network’s plan to begin with mostly at-home learning.

“Because a lot of people are still getting sick,” she said, “I think the best thing is to do remote learning until everything gets a little better.”

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