For Newark high schoolers, virtual learning will continue even in classrooms

Student in Mrs. Waterman’s fifth grade class at Wesley Elementary School.
When Newark school buildings reopen April 12, high school students who return to classrooms will still take their classes online. (Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

Even if they return to classrooms next month, Newark high schoolers will still be learning virtually.

Unlike pre-pandemic high school when students switched classes every period, students who choose to return April 12 will remain in the same classroom with the same teacher for the entire school day, according to interviews with Newark Public Schools teachers and students and a review of high school reopening plans. 

And rather than teach the students in front of them, teachers will give online lessons to students who in many cases are in other rooms or at home.

In effect, high schools will offer supervised virtual learning when students return.

Other districts, including New York City and Los Angeles, have taken a similar approach. While not ideal academically, that model of in-person learning can curb coronavirus transmission by limiting students’ movement and confining them to small cohorts, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend

It also minimizes disruptions if students are forced to quarantine, as they simply shift from taking online classes at school to taking them at home. And while it keeps social interaction to a minimum, the approach still gets teenagers out of their houses and back in the company of peers and teachers.

Such rigorous school-safety precautions are understandable in Newark, where the pandemic has hospitalized and killed the city’s mostly Black and Hispanic residents at disproportionately high rates. Still, some high school teachers and students have questioned whether it’s worth returning to school if most of their learning will remain online.

“I don’t like the idea of going to school just to get back on the computer,” said University High School student Rasheed Smith, who wanted to return in person until he heard the reopening plan. “I could do that at home.”

After operating remotely for more than a year, the Newark school district will invite students to come back into classrooms two days a week beginning next month, and to keep learning from home the other three days. Just under 40% of all families signed up for that hybrid learning model, while the rest chose to stay fully remote. Among high schoolers, the percentage opting to return to campus was even smaller, just 28%, or about 3,100 students.

Elementary schools will also keep students in one classroom all day, which will be an adjustment but not a huge change for younger students used to taking most classes with the same teacher.

But for high schoolers who come back, school will look drastically different than what they’re used to, according to multiple high school reopening plans.

In most cases, students must bring their school-issued laptops and headphones with them each day. Some high schools are distributing clear backpacks that will be easier to inspect when students arrive.

After their temperatures are taken and their hands and shoes are sanitized, students will report to the designated classroom where they will spend the entire school day. Sitting 6 feet apart behind clear desktop barriers, students will log into their online classes, just as they would at home.

During certain periods, students might take a class led by the teacher standing in front of them. But during other periods, the teacher and students in the same room will be engaged in different online classes.

A high school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous so he could speak freely about the reopening plan, said he expects to instruct the students in his physical room for just one period each day.

“The entire rest of the day, those students are just present in my room with me babysitting them,” he said. “They’re just sitting there staring at their computer screens the whole time, doing virtual learning with a teacher who is in a different classroom.”

In most cases, high school students can only leave their classrooms to use the restroom. Cafeterias, gyms, and auditoriums will be off limits, and students will receive to-go lunches as they leave. 

At several schools, hybrid students will come to campus either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday, and everyone will learn remotely on Wednesday while buildings are sanitized. Both remote and in-person classes will now end at 1:30 p.m., with afternoons reserved for students to complete assignments or get individual assistance.

During a virtual forum Monday, Superintendent Roger León suggested that principals could potentially allow students to switch classes — but he advised against it.

“I would not be moving students,” he said, explaining that “non-movement helps mitigate against this virus.”

Rasheed Smith, who was one of the forum’s student moderators, told the superintendent that taking online classes at school defeated the purpose of in-person learning.

Students are “leaving their home to go to school to go back onto a laptop,” Smith said, “when they wanted to go to school to be with their teacher and get that full effect.”

León said he understood students’ frustration with in-person virtual learning.

“I explained that to a student the other day. She was like, ‘Then it’s just like me staying at home?’” he said. “Technically, yeah.”

Despite some dissatisfaction with the hybrid learning plan, several high school teachers and students said they were pleased with the district’s aggressive efforts to ensure school safety. The district has upgraded school ventilation systems, developed a rigorous cleaning protocol, agreed to weekly COVID-19 testing for students and staffers, and set up an employee vaccination site.

Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon said about 75% to 80% of teachers will return to their classrooms next month, with the rest having obtained district approval to continue working remotely. If high schools can safely reopen under the current plan, he added, the district might eventually allow students or teachers to move between classrooms.

“That would be a beautiful thing,” he said, but only “if we’ve gotten the return under control and we demonstrate we can do it safely.”

For now, some people remain unconvinced that learning virtually from inside a high school is much better than doing so from home.

“I want nothing more than to return to the type of learning that we used to have,” East Side High School teacher Kevin Cenac said at a school board meeting last week. “I just don’t want us to return to a situation that is simply worse than the status quo.”

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