Newark public school teachers mask up to welcome students hoping for a smooth year

Students hold umbrellas as they stand in a line outside a high school with trees lining the entrance as it rains.
Dozens of students wait in line outside Central High Schools on the first day of school for Newark Public Schools. (Jessie Gomez / Chalkbeat)

Before Elijah Lee walked out to the car for his first day as a Central High School freshman, he said a prayer with his mom, Jasmin Lee Phillips, who kept her nerves inside. 

They prayed for safety on the 14-year-old’s big day and for a good school year. Lee Phillips has been worried about her son, who has autism, starting high school but Elijah’s optimism and excitement put her at ease. 

“I just have to let him go,” said Lee Phillips, who worked at her son’s middle school when he attended last year. “I’m not going to worry about anything, I’m going to let him have his day.” 

By the time Elijah got to school, on a rainy Tuesday morning, he was grinning from ear to ear, excited to meet his teachers and classmates. 

It’s a big transition for any teen, but especially for Elijah. 

“I’m excited!” said Elijah, as he posed for a picture outside of the school building. 

Elijah Lee, an incoming freshman at Central High School, poses for a picture on his first day of school. Elijah, who has autism, is excited to attend a new school. (Jessie Gomez / Chalkbeat)

Elijah joins more than 38,000 students who returned to Newark Public Schools this morning – some sporting new backpacks but all wearing face masks, a district mandate that NPS officials say comes from the city’s health department.

The district’s remaining COVID-19 preventative measures, including temperature checks, health screenings, and weekly testing for the virus were dropped this school year, according to Superintendent Roger León, who announced the new measures at a board meeting last month. COVID testing for unvaccinated staff is no longer required on a weekly basis following an executive order signed by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy last month, León added. 

Yet some Newark parents weren’t too concerned about COVID this year. Parents such as Lee Phillips just felt happy to have their children return to a structured school schedule and daily social interactions. 

At Central, dozens of teens rushed to the 18th Avenue entrance Tuesday morning as the rain trickled down their backpacks. Some hugged their parents goodbye while others just waved as they ran up the stairs. At the 17th Avenue entrance of the school, students waited in a line outside the school’s doors.

Siki Adebara, also a parent of a freshman at Central, said she felt “a mix of emotions” about her son’s first day. As she walked down the stairs of the school, she saw Elijah and leaned in to hug him and his mom. Her son, already inside the school, was Elijah’s classmate last year. 

Elijah Lee and his mom, Jasmin Lee Phillips, pose for a picture on the first day of school for Newark students. (Jessie Gomez / Chalkbeat)

Adebara’s only concern was that she was still waiting on the school to give her a bus assignment for her son. Lee Phillips hadn’t received one for her son either as of Tuesday morning. 

“The school said they would send it to us but we haven’t gotten anything yet,” Adebara said. 

A block away from Central, KIPP Thrive students ran out of cars and into the entrance of that school as the rain picked up shortly after 8:00 a.m. Once their kids waved goodbye to them, parents drove out of the busy intersection on 18th Avenue and Livingston Street. Crossing guards at both schools helped kids cross the street and avoid drivers eager to leave the area.

Last year, Newark and other cities in New Jersey struggled to fill crossing guard positions. Currently, the city is at 72% of its budgetary allocation for school crossing guards with an additional 27 in the hiring process, according to Sharonda Morris, Newark Police deputy director of operations. Assuming that all 27 prospective applicants are hired, the department will bump up to 92%, Morris added.

Newark had 11 openings in a force of 126 crossing guards, according to the city police department last October. 

This year, school officials will not only have to deal with the lingering effects of the pandemic but also have to tackle some of the district’s most pressing issues including attendance rates, support for students with disabilities, and teacher and student mental health. Even though in-person learning resumed last fall, teachers will continue to focus on academic progress and learning loss due to the pandemic. 

Ahead of the school year, the district hired 600 new teachers arriving from other districts and starting out in the profession, according to León in an interview with ABC7. In June, the district announced the appointment of 10 new principals across district high schools. An additional two were appointed over the summer to Science Park High School and Newark Vocational High School and replaced two first-year principals. 

Students walk up the stairs at Central High School on the first day of school for Newark Public Schools. (Jessie Gomez / Chalkbeat)

Newark has struggled to hire enough teachers and other educators in the past, as districts nationwide contend with staffing shortages. By the end of March, Superintendent Roger León said, there were 115 instructional openings. During a board meeting last month, León said there were 75 vacancies across the district with numbers fluctuating every day. 

A teacher at Thirteenth Avenue Elementary School who preferred to remain unnamed said she felt nervous ahead of the first day of school because of the experiences she went through last year. The teacher said understaffing and a lack of resources were a problem at the school. 

Last week, district officials held their annual convocation to welcome teachers and staff to Newark ahead of the school year. León thanked teachers for their hard work during the pandemic before he highlighted some of the district’s accomplishments this year, including an increase in student enrollment, student attendance, scholarship awards, and graduation rates.

“I really appreciate all of you for your hard work,” said León during the convocation. The impact of your work is realized every day in our schools by our students who have a safe, nutritious, and healthy learning environment with the resources needed to be successful.”

The district did not respond to comment on Tuesday morning.

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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