The coronavirus has claimed the lives of six Newark Public Schools employees out of at least 66 district staffers who have been infected, Superintendent Roger León said Tuesday.
About 13 of the employees who tested positive for the coronavirus are believed to have been infected while in-person classes were still in session, while the rest contracted the virus after school buildings were closed beginning March 16, León added.
The announcement marked the first time officials have publicly shared the virus’s toll on the district’s nearly 5,700-member workforce in the two months since the pandemic shuttered schools nationwide.
“This is an evil disease,” León said during the school board’s virtual meeting Tuesday. “You do not see it coming, and when it arrives, it does not allow those who you love to come near you.”
He asked for a moment of silence to honor the six “incredible employees” who died due to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. The district has not released the employees’ names or job titles, though León said they worked “on the academic and operations side of the organization.” (The six who died are included in the count of 66 who tested positive.)
Newark has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus. As of Tuesday, the city’s virus death toll was 542 and its number of confirmed cases approached 6,800. The city is offering free testing for residents, including those without insurance, at multiple sites.
Employees at Newark’s charter schools have also tested positive for the virus. At University Heights Charter School, about 20% of employees have become infected or had a loved one become ill, Executive Director Tamara Cooper told Chalkbeat this month.
“Some, they had it, their spouse and child had it, and now they’re recovering,” she said, adding that many students also had loved ones become ill. “Some lost grandparents, moms, dads, uncles.”
The infections and deaths underscore the dangers that schools will have to grapple with when — and if — school buildings reopen this fall. The health risks have already left some school employees across the country, particularly those who are older or medically vulnerable, questioning whether they will feel safe returning to schools until a vaccine is available.
In New York City, where more than 70 school system employees have died as a result of the coronavirus, the city teachers union has called for universal testing, temperature checks at school entrances, and possibly staggered schedules to enable physical distancing inside classrooms.
John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, called the number of coronavirus cases and deaths among district employees “sobering.”
“We’re sympathetic, and we count our blessings,” he said Tuesday. He credited strong leadership by state and city officials, along with Newark residents heeding public-health guidelines, with preventing the district’s toll from rising higher than it has.
Abeigon is part of a task force León recently established to come up with recommendations for how to safely reopen the city’s schools. The group is considering a number of questions, Abeigon said, including: How can students and employees maintain a safe distance inside schools? What is the appropriate number of students to allow in a classroom? Will some students need to continue taking classes virtually?
“There’s a lot of thought that has to go into reopening,” he said.