Newark schools say they are taking coronavirus precautions, as state tells districts to plan for teaching students at home

The Newark school district on Thursday afternoon assured families that it is taking precautions to keep students and employees safe amid the nationwide spread of the new coronavirus, just as state officials announced that a second person had tested positive for the virus in New Jersey.

That evening, the state sent a memo ordering every school board to come up with plans to educate students at home should schools need to close for health reasons, such as a coronavirus outbreak. Home instruction can include online classes and will count toward the requirement that students receive 180 school days per year, the memo said.

New Jersey’s first two “presumptive positive” cases of the virus, COVID-19, were discovered this week in Bergen County, just north of Newark, state officials said Thursday, adding that they are waiting for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to confirm the test results. More cases are likely as additional people are tested, though officials added that the overall risk of contracting the virus remains low. 

The letter distributed to Newark Public Schools students and employees on Thursday. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

In a letter distributed to students and emailed to employees Thursday afternoon, Newark schools chief Roger León said there is no indication of “the presence of the coronavirus in our schools at this time.” The district is nonetheless taking “precautionary actions” to ensure the health and safety of students and staff members, the superintendent said.

District officials have been in contact with the city and state health departments and are following their recommendations, León said. Inside schools, he added, nurses have been reminding students about safety measures they can take, such as washing their hands and properly covering their coughs, and custodians have been sanitizing “high contact surfaces,” which includes cafeteria tables, desktops, and doorknobs.

“If we learn of further developments that directly impact us in Newark, I will reach out to you again,” León said in the letter addressed to the “Newark School Community.”

The letter did not raise the possibility of school closures in the event of a local outbreak of the coronavirus, which causes flu-like symptoms and has infected more than 200 people in 18 states. It also did not say whether classes will be offered online if students cannot come to school.

The state health department has previously advised schools to prepare for the possibility of a local outbreak that could force schools to close. The potential for school closures has raised questions about whether schools would still be forced to meet the 180-school-day requirement. 

Schools can meet that requirement by providing students with home instruction, which can include online learning, each day that schools are forced to close for public health reasons, New Jersey’s Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said in his memo Thursday to districts and charter schools. The closures must be ordered by state or local health departments, Repollet added.

Every school board must submit its plan for home instruction in the event of health-related school closures to the county superintendent, the memo says. The plans should address how students with disabilities will continue to receive their required services and how eligible students will get meals that are normally served in schools.

Whether schools will be able to provide online classes to students on a large scale remains an open question. Even if schools have the necessary technology, many families do not, said Marie Blistan, the president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

“Not everybody has the internet, not everybody has a computer at home,” Blistan told Chalkbeat on Thursday before the state released its memo. “Those are things we have to think about.”

As fears about the coronavirus escalated last month, some districts began posting public notices explaining the steps they were taking to prepare for any outbreak. Newark officials did not provide such information until Thursday’s letter, which was not available online as of late Thursday.

Lisa Santos, whose son is in third grade at Chancellor Avenue School, said she had been waiting anxiously for information from the district about its plans to keep students safe.

“I haven’t heard anything,” she said Thursday afternoon as she picked up her son from school. “Everybody’s pretty much in the dark.”