Newark Teachers Union urges district to delay in-person learning, adding to growing push for all-remote start

Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon is calling on the district to “hit pause” on plans to reopen classrooms next month, adding momentum to a growing push to start the school year virtually. (Facebook/Newark Teachers Union)

The Newark Teachers Union is calling on the city school district to begin the year virtually, joining a rising tide of opposition to in-person learning just weeks before classes are slated to start.

The union’s demand that Newark Superintendent Roger León “hit pause” on reopening classrooms marks a significant reversal for the union, which has until now supported the district’s “hybrid” plan to offer both in-person and at-home learning when school starts Sept. 8. 

The about-face comes after the statewide teachers union recently urged Gov. Phil Murphy to order schools to open all-remotely; instead, Murphy gave districts the option to delay classroom instruction if they believe they cannot meet the state’s safety guidelines. It also reflects mounting pressure from Newark educators worried about the health risks of resuming in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic. A recently posted online petition calling for Newark to begin the year virtually has garnered nearly 1,400 signatures.

“Given the new guidelines, we are strongly urging Supt. León to hit ‘pause’ on a September reopening and use the month to monitor and adjust to the new guidelines,” Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon said in a message to members Friday. 

A district spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Abeigon said the union remains confident that Newark schools can safely reopen because the district has “done everything above and beyond” to prepare. However, he said it is not practical to resume in-person learning when so many Newark families and teachers are fearful of returning to classrooms.

“In the last three weeks, morale shot down to the basement and fear shot through the roof,” he said Sunday. “You can’t successfully reopen, no matter how well prepared you are, if the confidence and the trust factor isn’t there.”

Newark families and educators had until Friday to request to learn or teach remotely this school year. In his message, Abeigon urged union members to complete the survey, saying that any “changes to the district’s plan is going to be guided by these results.” Abeigon has repeatedly said he believes that most students will learn remotely this fall, but actual demand for virtual learning will not be clear until the district releases the survey results.

Some of New Jersey’s largest districts — including Camden, Elizabeth, Jersey City, and Paterson — have said they plan to start with all-remote learning, and the list has continued growing after Murphy issued the new guidance. It now includes some Essex County districts, including East Orange and Montclair, as well as Newark’s largest charter school networks. And Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has advised families not to send their children back into classrooms, though he stopped short of urging the district to only allow remote learning.

León has been adamant that any students and employees who choose to return to school will do so safely. The district’s reopening plan includes detailed safety measures, including virus testing for employees, daily temperature and symptom checks of students and staffers, and mandatory face coverings and physical distancing inside classrooms.

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“The health and safety of students and staff have been our first priority, and will remain so,” León wrote in the introduction to the reopening plan.

But some parents and teachers have expressed concerns about the plan. Many worry that students will struggle to wear face masks and stay 6 feet apart during daily in-person classes.

Some teachers also were alarmed by comments León made during a recent question-and-answer session. He said teachers are partly responsible for cleaning and sanitizing their own classrooms, and that educators worried about poor ventilation in schools must be “very, very patient.”

Those doubts about the safety of in-person learning prompted the Newark Education Workers caucus to post the online petition last week calling for an all-remote start to the school year. The group, which includes teachers and other advocates focused on social justice, is also demanding that the district provide teachers with N95 masks, hire more custodians, and ensure that every school is equipped with working, high-quality air filtration systems.

“We are calling for immediate remote opening until it’s safe,” said Avram Rips, an early childhood educator in Newark and caucus member who said most of his colleagues share his apprehension about reopening classrooms. “The majority say they are not going to go and they’re really afraid.”

Abeigon, the union president, said teachers should be allowed to give virtual lessons from their classrooms next month while students remain at home. That way, teachers could make sure that the district is taking all the necessary precautions, such as cleaning classrooms and installing barriers on top of desks, before launching in-person learning.

“If teachers are allowed to go in and do virtual teaching, we’ll have hundreds of eye witnesses,” he said. “That goes a long way to building up morale and assuaging the fears of the community.”

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