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Newark schools will stay closed longer as N.J. orders residents to stay home amid coronavirus

Newark will keep its schools closed longer than initially expected as New Jersey ratchets up its efforts to contain the new coronavirus.

The district now says schools will “operate virtually until further notice,” a change from its previous message that schools would reopen March 30. Families also received an automated call Friday saying Newark schools would stay closed at least through April 3, parents said — though even that date may be optimistic given the state’s aggressive efforts to reduce COVID-19 infections.

On Saturday, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered residents to stay home and non-essential businesses to shutter, adding that the restrictions could last “weeks to months.” The executive order says schools must remain closed while the order is in effect.

“We haven’t made the final call yet” about when to reopen schools, Murphy said during a Saturday news conference, where he announced that more than 1,300 New Jersey residents have now tested positive for the virus. “But the chances are overwhelming we’re not going back to school [on March 30].”

At the same time, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka placed even tighter restrictions on residents in three parts of the city that have been hit hard by the virus, saying they should only leave their homes for medical reasons or to get food. Families who live in those areas and have children will continue to be allowed to pick up grab-and-go meals from designated school sites, officials said.

Amid the escalating efforts to contain the virus, teachers are being told to expect prolonged school closures.

“As the situation is changing daily, it is reasonable for us to say that the schools will remain closed indefinitely for now,” Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon said Friday in a message to members. “Prepare for that mentally and logistically.”

Schools appear to be gearing up for the possibility that students will be learning from home for an extended period. Some schools began loaning Chromebook laptops to families last week, and others were giving them out at school sites on Saturday, teachers said. Next week, the district will distribute additional laptops to students who still need them, Baraka previously said. 

The district also created packets for students that include daily assignments through April 3, or three weeks from when schools were shut down. The district may bring in an outside vendor to prepare additional daily lessons if schools end up being closed past that date, Abeigon told union members.

A Newark Public Schools spokeswoman did not respond to questions Saturday about how long schools would remain closed.

Meanwhile, some Newark charter schools have already extended their closures. KIPP New Jersey told families last week that its 11 Newark schools will remain shuttered through April 17, several weeks later than the network originally anticipated. 

Nationally, other cities and states have indicated that school closures due to the coronavirus may stretch for weeks or even months. Chicago recently extended its school shutdown, and the governors of California and Colorado suggested students may not return to schools this academic year.

In Newark, teachers have been managing to keep in touch with their students during the shutdown by livestreaming lessons, posting assignments online, and answering questions by phone, email, and app. 

East Side High School teacher Lilia Arfinengo said teachers would continue serving students remotely no matter how long schools are closed.

“Whatever the date is, I am sure that we will be stronger by how much we are supporting each other,” she told Chalkbeat in a text message Saturday. “I’m proud of how effective my district is dealing with all this pandemic by making sure all of our students are well and learning.”

This article answers questions raised by our readers. Share your coronavirus-related questions, concerns, and ideas by emailing us at community@chalkbeat.org, and keep up with our reporting on COVID-19 here.