Newark will prep school workers on coronavirus, as N.J. declares state of emergency

The Newark school district will train employees this week to take precautions related to the new coronavirus, including what to do in the case of mandatory school closures, the city teachers union said Monday amid rising concerns about the virus.

On Monday evening, Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency, authorizing the education department and other state agencies to take “appropriate steps” to address the health crisis. The move came after state officials announced Monday that five additional people tested positive for the virus, called COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 11.

To date, no one from Newark has tested positive for the virus and no city schools have had to close. 

The governor’s emergency declaration will not immediately disrupt schools, Murphy said in a video message, adding that the risk of infection for individuals remains low and that he made the declaration out of an abundance of caution.

“For the overwhelming majority of New Jerseyans, this declaration will have no immediate impact on daily life,” he said, adding that residents can continue to move around freely and go to school or work.

Last week, the state education department ordered districts to create contingency plans in the case of coronavirus-related school closures. A few districts said they would dismiss students early this week or cancel a day of classes so they could work on the plans, which are likely to include online classes.

More than 600 cases of the coronavirus and more than 20 deaths have been reported in the U.S., according to counts by news outlets. In areas with outbreaks, some schools have closed in order to slow the spread of the virus, while a growing number of colleges — including Princeton University in New Jersey — are switching from in-person classes to online ones. Children appear less likely to develop severe symptoms of the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, but they can still be infected and spread the virus.

Newark Superintendent Roger León said last week that the district has been following city and state health department recommendations and that schools have taken extra health precautions. The measures include nurses giving students lessons on hand washing, and custodians sanitizing high-touch surfaces such as cafeteria tables, desktops, and doorknobs.

The district will share more information with personnel on Wednesday, when students are out of school and employees are to attend a previously scheduled training unrelated to the coronavirus. Custodians, cafeteria workers, and security guards will be trained on health and safety measures, while teachers and other staffers will discuss procedures for school closures, according to the message sent to Newark Teachers Union members. 

Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon, who met with León on Monday, said the district is still developing its coronavirus contingency plan.

Forced school closures would pose a number of challenges that the district must think through, such as how to ensure that students continue to receive free or reduced-priced breakfast and lunch that schools serve each day, Abeigon added. One solution could be to ask local community groups and religious organizations to help deliver the school meals to students’ homes, he said.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for the village to stand up and act like a village,” Abeigon said.

Another consideration is how students would participate in online lessons if they do not have home computers or internet access. Abeigon said the district is reaching out to internet providers to explore options for providing internet access to families who lack it, but that plans have not yet been made.

The union is advising teachers to stay home if they experience any symptoms of an illness, Abeigon said, adding that the district assured him that teachers will not be penalized for medically excused absences. He said it is important for teachers to keep calm, which will also help ease students’ anxiety.

“We’re telling everyone, be calm,” he said. “There’s no cause for panic.”

A district spokeswoman did not immediately respond to questions Monday about the district’s planning. The district has not posted any information on its website apart from a coronavirus fact sheet.

More than a third of Newark students attend charter schools, which are also required to come up with plans to educate students at home should schools need to close due to the coronavirus. 

KIPP New Jersey is still finalizing its plan, said a spokeswoman for the charter school network, which educates nearly 4,800 students at its 11 Newark schools. In the meantime, the schools are stepping up their cleaning and hand washing routines and distributing disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer to every classroom, said spokeswoman Jessica Shearer, who added that no cases of the virus have been reported in any of the schools. The network also created a webpage with information about the virus.
“In the unlikely event we need to close school, we are preparing contingency plans and will continue to keep families updated,” said Joanna Belcher, KIPP-Newark’s executive director, in a Mar. 6 letter to families. 

Other charter school operators have taken similar precautions, including Marion P. Thomas Charter School, which serves about 1,500 students across three Newark schools. Custodians are ramping up their cleaning of high-touch surfaces, the schools are stocking up on hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes, and sick students or staff members are being sent home, according to a Mar. 6 letter to families. 

The BRICK Education Network, or BEN, which oversees Marion P. Thomas and another charter school, is still developing its plan to educate students at home in the event of a closure, the letter said. 

“We encourage everyone to contemplate plans for what to do if BEN Schools are closed for cleaning and/or quarantine for several days,” the letter said.

Ikisha Grant, whose son is in the third grade at KIPP Seek Academy, said her family would manage if the school had to temporarily close — they have a home computer with internet and an older daughter who could babysit while Grant is at work. For now, Grant said her family is focusing on things they can control, like good hygiene, while they await updates from the school.

“I’m trying to calm myself down, I’m making sure we clean up and wash our hands,” she said. “It’s just a lot.”

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