‘I wouldn’t send anybody to school’: Newark mayor joins growing pushback against in-person learning

Mayor Ras Baraka, pictured at a press conference in March, advised parents this week against sending their children back to school. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

With Newark schools set to reopen next month, Mayor Ras Baraka is advising families to keep their children out of classrooms while the coronavirus continues to spread.

The Newark school district has given families until Aug. 14 to decide whether their children will stay home for remote learning next month or return to schools, which the district says will follow new safety protocols. But Baraka, who does not have any direct control over schools, suggested this week that families should avoid in-person learning until the virus is more fully contained.

“At this rate, I would advise everybody to keep their children home from school,” the mayor said Monday during his daily address to residents. “At this rate, I wouldn’t send anybody to school.”

The mayor’s comments add to a chorus of voices — educators, parents, and elected officials — who are calling for a delay of in-person learning as the new school year approaches, even as federal officials push for a quick restart. On Monday, a handful of Newarkers joined a nationwide day of action to sound the alarm about the risks of reopening schools.

On Wednesday, Chicago became the latest major school district to announce that school will start fully online — a decision that a growing number of districts have made partly in response to pressure from teachers’ unions and surveys showing many families plan to keep their children home.

Newark has not released data from its surveys of parents and teachers, so it’s unclear how many people are willing to return to classrooms when school starts Sept. 8. 

Protestors at a small rally outside Newark Public Schools headquarters Monday called for the district to delay in-person learning until the coronavirus is more fully contained. (Courtesy of Johnnie Lattner/PULSE)

But the Newark Teachers Union has projected that only a third of the district’s roughly 36,000 students will learn in person next month. And many individual educators have expressed a desire to stay home, saying they question the efficacy and enforceability of the district’s planned safety measures, such as mandatory face masks and physical distancing. 

Still, the union is backing the district’s plan to offer both virtual and in-person learning, unlike other teachers unions in New Jersey and elsewhere that have taken a strong stance against reopening classrooms. This week, the Newark union distributed a new, joint survey with the district asking teachers if they’re willing to return to schools. Only teachers with documented health conditions or approved family or medical leave can request to work remotely, the union said.

Yet even as the union endorses a partial return to in-person learning, its president said he agrees with Baraka’s advice to keep children home.

“If I’m a Newark parent and I have childcare, I’m not sending my kid to school — especially if they have medical issues,” NTU President John Abeigon said Tuesday during an online information session. 

At the state level, Gov. Phil Murphy has repeatedly emphasized the importance of in-person learning, both for students who need the structure and support that physical classrooms provide and for working parents who require childcare. Yet widespread concerns about reopening schools led his administration last month to require districts to offer remote learning to families who request it. And with the virus continuing to spread at a high rate in New Jersey, he recently said students who return to school must wear face masks at all times.

In Newark, virus infections have plummeted since peaking in April, yet the outbreak is far from over. The city has seen more than 400 new cases and 26 deaths since June 30, Baraka said Wednesday.

Those numbers have convinced some Newark parents and educators that school buildings should remain closed next month. A few people made that case at a press conference outside Newark Public Schools headquarters Monday, saying they want more information from the district, including details about school ventilation systems and cleaning protocols.

Johnnie Lattner, a co-founder of the PULSE parent-advocacy group who joined the protest, said teachers and parents want more input in the district’s reopening plan.

“They need to start listening,” he said about district officials. “We’re talking about people’s lives here.”

Betty Maloney, who was also at the event, agreed. A retired Newark guidance counselor, she questioned whether the district’s aging buildings will be properly ventilated and will have enough personnel, including nurses. Until the district has provided more assurances to families and employees, classrooms should not reopen, she said.

“It’s putting children at risk,” said Maloney, a member of the Newark Education Workers caucus, an activist group that includes educators and community members. “It’s putting teachers at risk.”

Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify that the event outside Newark Public Schools headquarters on Monday was a press conference.

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