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With Newark schools temporarily shuttered due to the coronavirus, Mayor Ras Baraka told students: “We want you to stay in the house, we want you to do the work that you're supposed to do."

With Newark schools temporarily shuttered due to the coronavirus, Mayor Ras Baraka told students: “We want you to stay in the house, we want you to do the work that you’re supposed to do.”

‘Stay in the house,’ Newark mayor urges students as schools close amid city’s first coronavirus cases

Newark officials are urging students to stay indoors and focus on take-home work now that the city has its first confirmed case of the new coronavirus and schools are temporarily shuttered.

“We expect our students to be at home doing their work that they’re getting from their schools,” said Mayor Ras Baraka at a news conference Sunday. Officials said two people tested in Newark were found positive for the virus; at least one of the patients lives in Newark, while the second case is still under investigation.

Statewide, 98 people have tested positive for the virus and two have died, officials said Sunday. The virus, which causes a respiratory illness called COVID-19, appears to produce milder symptoms in children but they can still become infected and spread the virus. Gov. Phil Murphy said he expects on Monday to order all public and private schools that remain open to shut their doors in order to slow the spread of the virus.

The Newark school district’s more than 36,000 students will be out of school until at least March 30, and most of the city’s roughly 19,000 charter school students will also work from home, the district and charters announced late last week. Designated district schools in each ward will continue to give out free daily meals to students, and schools are distributing assignment packets to keep students busy at home.

“We want you to stay in the house, we want you to do the work that you’re supposed to do, and prayerfully we’ll all get through this,” Baraka said.

The sudden closure of the city’s schools is sure to upend the daily lives of thousands of families, including working parents who must quickly find child care or stay home from work. It will also take a toll on students who are being advised to stay indoors, particularly when some households do not have internet access and the city’s public libraries are shutting their doors.

In order to provide some relief to families, Newark will freeze rent evictions for people impacted by a quarantine order and will suspend water shut-offs, Baraka said. The utility PSE&G has also said it is temporarily suspending electric and gas shut-offs for residential customers who cannot pay their bills.

Essex County has halted evictions, and county employees who need to stay at home to care for children whose schools are closed will continue to receive their paychecks, said Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr.

At the federal level, the House passed a sweeping aid package on Saturday meant to help families and workers impacted by the pandemic. The bill, which the Senate is expected to take up next week, would provide free coronavirus testing, expanded food assistance, and two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family and medical leave for certain workers. 

The school closures and quarantines of infected people will cause hardships for many Newark residents, Baraka said. While Newark does not have “billions and billions of dollars in our budget” to provide assistance to affected residents and business, the moratorium on evictions is a first step, he added.

“I think it’s incumbent upon us as leaders to create opportunities for these parents not to become homeless, not to hurt them in this situation,” he said, adding that all residents should avoid large gatherings and stay home when possible.

More than 80% of students in Newark’s traditional schools are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches. While classes are canceled, those students can continue to receive meals at designated schools from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Monday to Friday. Charter schools are also coming up with plans to distribute meals during the closure.

Some schools gave students district-made homework packets this weekend. Families can also pick up packets at the meal sites, or download them from the district website. The packets include three weeks’ worth of learning activities for students at every grade level. Most charter schools are giving students their own packets to complete, while a few plan to offer online lessons.

The written assignments reflect the reality that many Newark students lack the technology to do online work at home, while many schools do not have the infrastructure to offer such lessons. About 20% of Newark households lack smartphones or computers and a third do not have internet access, according to census data

A few charter schools said they will give students laptops and internet hotspots to take home, while the Newark-based nonprofit Project Ready, with support from the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, provided wireless hotspots to families at Hawthorne Avenue School.

But students who might normally get online at the city’s public libraries are out of luck: All Newark Public Library locations will be closed through March 28. Residents can continue to check out ebooks and audiobooks online, the library said.

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