Newark is postponing the school’s scheduled reopening from this month to April, district officials said Wednesday – a decision that means students have spent more than a year studying remotely.
The delay Superintendent Roger León shared with families and staff on Wednesday evening is due to the continued surge in coronavirus cases in Newark and pressure from the city’s teachers’ union to keep classrooms closed. It is the third time this school year that the district has postponed reopening school buildings since they closed in March.
“In Newark we are at a critical stage in the fight against Covid-19 and the health and safety of students and staff remains my top priority,” León said in the letter. “Based on what we know today, and in consultation with the Newark Health Department, I weighed many factors and decided to continue distance learning until after the spring break.”
Students who enroll will be returning to classrooms part-time starting April 12. Families can also request that their children continue to study virtually until the end of the school year.
Although online learning will now last at least three months, some staff and students will get into the classrooms before that, León’s letter said. Non-teaching staff will be checking in with schools and district headquarters next week, and some teachers will be returning to schools on Jan. 19 – presumably if they choose to teach remotely from their classrooms. In addition, starting January 25, some students will receive personal advice and special education.
The district will continue to distribute packaged meals at 22 locations and the city will reopen public locations where adult-supervised students can take online classes while their parents work. This comes from a message on the district’s Facebook page.
The pandemic has rocked Newark, which has been causing an average of more than 140 new virus cases per day since December 30, Mayor Ras Baraka said Monday. The city’s three-day COVID-19 test positivity rate was over 15% on Dec. 24, Baraka added – about double what it was in late October when the district last postponed face-to-face learning.
“We are at war against this virus,” Baraka said on Facebook Live on Monday. “The virus is overtaking our community.”
León has watched infections rise for weeks, and as early as November said he was “really concerned” that face-to-face learning might not be possible this month. Yet the district pushed ahead with its reopening plans this month, even advising staff this week to get tested for COVID-19 in preparation for their return.
These messages alarmed many teachers and prompted the head of the Newark Teachers Union to urge León to cancel this month’s reopening.
“We don’t believe that reopening is certain,” union president John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Monday. “Right now we’re doing everything in our power to try to stop it.”
Newark isn’t the only New Jersey borough expanding distance learning. Jersey City Public Schools announced Tuesday that students will continue studying online through April 21. Several other districts have recently switched from a hybrid model to all-remote learning. Still, the majority of the state’s counties offer at least face-to-face learning.
Newark’s decision to leave students at home is likely to put many families and teachers at ease who are concerned about infections in the school. However, the expansion of distance learning will also pose a hardship for working parents and students separated from their peers, and threaten to exacerbate the learning loss students are likely to experience due to prolonged school closings.
“Since last school year, every decision related to Covid has weighed heavily on me because I know that each of these decisions has a profound impact on your entire life,” León said in his letter. “I have asked you to be flexible and patient, and I appreciate everyone’s willingness to do so.”