Newark Public Schools drops plan to reopen classrooms, will begin the year virtually

Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.
All Newark Public Schools students will learn remotely when classes start next month, according to the Newark Teachers Union.

The Newark school system is scrapping its plans to reopen in-person classrooms next month and will instead start the school year virtually, officials said Monday.

All students will learn from home through the end of the first marking period on Nov. 17, after which the district will reassess whether it is safe to offer some in-person learning. The announcement is a major reversal for New Jersey’s largest school district, which had planned to offer in-person classes along with remote learning when school begins Sept. 8.

“The COVID-19 pandemic as it stands is still a large public health risk and it will be treated as such,” Newark Board of Education President Josephine Garcia said in a statement, which said the board supports the decision to shift to all-remote learning. “This being said, the public health and safety of our students and staff will continue to be held to the highest standard.”

The announcement comes after many Newark parents and educators expressed concerns about reopening schools during the coronavirus crisis. While virus infections have sharply dropped in Newark since peaking in April, the city has reported more than 500 new cases and 30 deaths since June 30.

On Friday, the Newark Teachers Union urged the district to “hit pause” on its plans to reopen classrooms, citing low morale and high anxiety among staffers. Separately, a group of Newark educators circulated an online petition demanding that schools open virtually; as of Monday, it had garnered nearly 1,800 signatures. 

The union’s push for a virtual start came after Newark Mayor Ras Baraka earlier this month advised families not to send their children back to classrooms amid continuing virus infections, and the city’s largest charter school networks announced plans to begin the year remotely. 

Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy said districts could postpone in-person learning if they were not ready to safely reopen schools, which prompted a growing number of districts to revise their plans and start virtually.

Superintendent Roger León announced the decision at a private meeting of the district’s school-reopening task force Monday morning, said John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union and a task force member. León asked the committee to vote on the plan, and the members unanimously agreed to have all students begin the year learning remotely, Abeigon said.

“There were just too many variables outside of our control,” said Abeigon.

The pivot to all-remote learning caught the school board by surprise. While board members had been pushing the district for weeks to delay the start of in-person learning, they only learned that the district has revised its reopening plans after Chalkbeat reported on the change Monday, a board member said.

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On Monday afternoon, the district posted a terse online message saying that schools would operate remotely for the first marking period.

“All other related guidance regarding remote instruction remains in full effect,” the message said. “If you have any other questions or concerns, please contact the Principal of your child’s school for further instructions and assistance.”

With in-person learning on hold, schools will now turn their full attention to virtual learning. That posed some steep challenges this spring after schools abruptly closed and students were forced to learn from home.

One major issue was technology: Schools had to quickly loan thousands of laptops to students who needed them to participate in online learning. However, some schools did not have laptops available for every student, forcing some students to share a single computer with siblings or use their cellphones to join video classes and complete assignments.

In June, León said that 4,000 of the loaned laptops needed to be replaced, and the district would have to purchase 10,000 additional laptops in order for every student to receive one. He has not provided a recent update on how many students still need laptops. But Garcia, the school board president, told Chalkbeat that schools will soon do another laptop distribution for families that still need them.

Families also reported a lack of consistency in online instruction this spring. Some teachers held live lessons on video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Webex, while others mostly posted assignments and checked in with families by phone and email.

This fall, the district will need to set clear expectations for online learning, said Wilhelmina Holder, a Newark education activist and member of the reopening task force. One requirement must be for teachers to hold live virtual classes, she added.

“They could get a robot to post an assignment,” she said. “I’m looking for some engaging lessons where the students and the teachers are actually talking to each other.”

She added that schools must continue to provide students with strong instruction even though they’ll be learning from home for the foreseeable future.

“We can’t lower the standard just because we’re online,” she said. “We still have to have the highest standards and the highest expectations for these children.”

This story has been updated.

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