Photo credit: (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten urges all schools to be fully personal this fall. On Monday she met with Newark Public Schools superintendent Roger León.
As Newark schools slowly return to normal, the big question now is what to expect this fall.
Do students and employees still have to wear masks and social distance? Are eligible students vaccinated? And will parents who kept their children at home even after the classrooms reopened this spring be ready to send them back in September?
Those uncertainties hung in the air when Randi Weingarten, a leader of the national teachers’ union, visited a school in Newark on Monday. The visit was part of the union’s advertising campaign promoting the role of educators in reopening classrooms this spring and encouraging them to return to full-time on-site teaching this fall.
“Next year: full-time, full-time, everyone back,” said Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, during her visit to First Avenue School.
Weingarten’s effort to have full face-to-face learning this fall follows criticism that teacher unions played a key role in delaying schools reopening this school year as they fought for safety measures that sometimes exceeded recommendations from health experts. The Newark Teachers Union, a member of the national union, twice opposed the district’s plans to reopen classrooms this school year.
The district eventually kept most students out of classrooms for 13 months until some returned part-time for the final month.
Governor Murphy says there will be no distance option for the next school year
Now the tide is turning. As COVID-19 infections decline and vaccination rates rise, Governor Phil Murphy said last week that all schools in New Jersey will be fully face-to-face for the next school year and not offer a long-distance option. Other states have issued similar orders, and New York City did so on Monday.
But the rush to explain that all students will be studying in classrooms this fall has left some important questions unanswered. For example, will masks and social distancing remain mandatory in schools?
Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most indoor spaces – but quickly made it clear that the guidelines do not currently apply to schools. The agency is now working on instructions for the next school year.
On Monday, Murphy said New Jersey’s mask mandate would be lifted on May 28, as would social distancing rules in restaurants and other businesses. However, the changes do not apply to schools or daycare, and the state has not said when new guidelines will be available.
Weingarten, whose union represents around 1.7 million members, sent a letter to the CDC last week to clarify the safety protocols for the next school year. For her part, the union leader said students should stay at least three feet apart in classrooms this fall – a recommendation that would force many schools to reduce class size and secure additional space.
“The vaccines changed the game, but containment is really important,” Weingarten told Chalkbeat on Monday, adding that smaller class sizes create safer and more effective learning environments.
Do masks remain compulsory in elementary schools?
She also said she expects masking to remain mandatory in elementary schools, where most children will not be vaccinated, this fall.
Another emerging question is what to do with families who are reluctant to send their children back to the classroom.
A recent online survey commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers and other groups found that only 59% of black parents and 72% of Hispanic parents are comfortable sending their children back to full-time this fall. However, those percentages rise when strict security measures such as masks and physical distancing are followed, according to the survey.
The national union is launching a $ 5 million back-to-school campaign to reassure parents who are still suspicious of face-to-face learning. Public relations could include teachers’ home visits and school tours, Weingarten said, adding that planning is currently underway.
“We have to address these fears,” she wrote in a column on the campaign.
Another unknown is how many children 12 and older who are now eligible for the vaccine will receive it before the next school year.
Low vaccination rate in Newark
Only 28% of Newark residents are fully vaccinated – nearly 20 percentage points below the national rate. The relatively slow pace of vaccination in Newark suggests that many eligible children and their parents may not stay vaccinated this fall.
Some school districts have used government funds to promote vaccination. In Chicago, for example, mobile vaccination stations were parked in front of schools. In Newark, the city has set up vaccination centers in two high schools, but the district has not launched a vaccination campaign for students and their families.
“The district will continue to communicate all vaccination opportunities to residents and staff in Newark,” said spokeswoman Valerie Merritt, adding that “the decision to vaccinate is an extremely personal one for all families.”
Only about 40% of Newark Public Schools students returned to class last month. Still, the district didn’t launch a public campaign until the fall to allay lingering fears. Merritt said the district will keep families updated on plans for the next school year.
Much of the reach will likely be in schools. First Avenue School principal Rosa Branco said her school will hold family gatherings to explain personal safety procedures and answer questions.
“Just to make you feel good,” she said, “and let them know that everything has gone really well since we opened.”
John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, said he was unaware of any plans by the district to vaccinate students or reassure parents. But he said union members did their part, and according to the union, more than 80% are now fully vaccinated. If more community members follow suit, schools could potentially relax their security measures this fall, he added.
“If the number of gun vaccines continues to rise,” he said, “we will have fewer restrictions in September.”