In Newark, a mix of nerves and excitement as schools reopen

Children, wearing winter jackets and carrying backpacks, walk into Camden Street Elementary School.
Shawn Porter walked his daughters to Camden Street Elementary School on Tuesday. He said they were eager to return to their classrooms after two weeks of remote learning. “They’re actually excited.” (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

Lashundra Shamburger juggled opposing emotions as she walked her two children to school Tuesday morning. On the one hand, she felt it was time for them to leave their computers and return to the classroom. On the other hand, COVID.

“They need to go back,” she said as the family strode briskly on the sidewalk toward Camden Street Elementary School in Newark. But, she added, “I’m worried about them going back to school.”

Her daughter, Danielle, who is in the sixth grade, felt just as conflicted.

“I think it’s going to be great,” she said, her hood pulled up against the cold and a mask covering half her face. “But I don’t think it’s safe because a lot of people have tested positive.”

The Newark school district temporarily closed classrooms after winter break due to a surge in COVID cases, including hundreds of students and staffers who tested positive. After two weeks of virtual learning, city and district officials determined that the pace of new infections had slowed enough to allow school buildings to safely reopen on Tuesday.

“Newark Public Schools is, in fact, back in person,” Superintendent Roger León said on the All Politics R Local show.

Now the big question facing Newark schools is whether everyone will return. The district is not offering a remote option, but some families who remain worried about COVID could potentially decide to keep their children home.

Some school staffers might also stay home due to illness or fear of infection. Hundreds of district employees have tested positive for COVID just in the past few weeks. (The district has not updated its online COVID tracker since Jan. 9, so it’s unclear how many people tested positive last week.)

The district has taken a number of steps to reduce COVID spread, including mandating masks in schools, installing air purifiers throughout schools, and offering weekly COVID testing. However, one limitation is that many families have not submitted consent forms allowing their children to be tested. Before winter break, only about a third of the district’s 38,000 students had turned in the forms.

During the interview with All Politics R Local host Jonathan Alston, León said the district will monitor school infection rates and shut down sites when new cases spike.

“We will close it down,” he said. “We will close a classroom, an office, a whole entire school building.”

A security guard wearing a plastic face shield takes students’ temperatures before they entered Camden Street Elementary School. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

At Camden Street Elementary School, which serves about 600 students in Newark’s Central Ward, Principal Samuel Garrison said Tuesday that protocols are in place to keep students safe. He added that students benefit socially and academically when they learn face to face.

“Hands down, the best instruction our kids are going to receive is in-person instruction,” he said. “At every level, kids learn better when they’re in person.”

Several parents said they agree. 

Shawn Porter noticed that his two daughters, in kindergarten and fifth grade, seemed a little lethargic during remote learning. But on Tuesday, they were eager to get up and head to school.

“It’s not like waking them up for virtual,” he said. “They’re actually excited.”

Not everyone was as enthusiastic about returning.

After dropping off her children Tuesday, a parent who gave only her last name, Hayes, said she thought it was too soon for schools to reopen. Before break, she recalled hearing about several students and staff members getting COVID. (The district reported that two students and eight employees at Camden Street tested positive in the week before winter break.)

“How are you going to stop COVID from spreading?” she asked.

Another parent, JJ Rome, said he would have kept his third and fourth graders at home if that was an option.

“Until COVID is over,” he said, “I’d prefer it to be the same way it’s been: remote learning.”

After Keisha, who gave only her last initial, B, waved good-bye to her grandson Tuesday, she watched the second grader sprint to the school entrance, where guards were taking students’ temperatures before they stepped inside. Like most parents and guardians, Keisha said she was confident that the school’s employees would do everything in their power to keep her child safe.

“I’m a little apprehensive,” she said, “but I’m trusting that they’re going to treat our children just like they would treat their own.”

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