Newark teacher Stephanie Jones normally welcomes her students with high-fives and hugs on the first day of school. This year, she posted a video on YouTube.
“I know it’s not starting in the way that you wanted, that you expected,” Jones, who teaches 12th grade English at University High School, told her students in the online message. “But we are going to make it awesome nonetheless.”
On Tuesday, more than 36,000 students in Newark’s traditional public schools started the year not by filing into their classrooms but by flipping open their laptops. The unprecedented first day offered a preview of what lies ahead this fall as the state’s largest school district attempts to revamp remote learning after a trying spring, when schools struggled to reach some students after the coronavirus cleared out classrooms.
There were hopeful signs Tuesday, as some parents and teachers reported that online classes got off to a mostly smooth start.
“It was definitely good,” said Jones, adding that 22 of her 27 students made it to class. “It was better than I anticipated.”
On social media, some parents said their children faced minor issues joining their online classes, but those were quickly resolved.
“A few bumps,” one parent wrote on Facebook, adding that her child was online by 8:40 a.m. and “the rest of the day was very smooth.”
But other families said they had a much harder time logging into the online platforms, and some did not have a device for every child. Still others pointed to more fundamental concerns about remote learning, such as whether it’s effective to teach young children through computer screens for hours on end and what working parents are supposed to do while their children are learning from home.
“We can’t parent, teach, and work our own jobs simultaneously every single day,” said one mother, Nadia Trindade, who works from home handling logistics for a dye company.
Echoing other parents, Trindade also questioned how the district can expect her daughter, Mia, who is 6 and attends Oliver Street School, to sit through hours of classes on the videoconferencing platform Webex. The school’s daily remote learning schedule has first graders online for 60-minute reading, phonics, and math classes and a 45-minute science class, all on Webex.
“She gets bored easily and, with all the commotion, there’s no way she can learn like this,” Trindade said about the video lessons. “It’s pointless.”
The district had planned to bring some students back into schools this week. But last month, following pressure from some elected officials and the Newark Teachers Union, the district decided to delay in-person learning at least through Nov. 17, after the first marking period ends.
Despite the sudden change, officials say the district is prepared to provide students a far better remote learning experience than the one on offer in the spring.
The district created dozens of new courses and curriculum materials, as well as online assessments to identify areas where students fell behind during the prolonged school closures, officials said. Schools will provide tutoring later this fall to students who need it, and teachers will find ways to accommodate working students and parents, such as by holding online “office hours” after class, said Superintendent Roger León.
“The reality is that instruction is being very much tailored to the individual needs of students,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
Students will also attend more live classes on Webex this fall, León said — a change from the spring, when some teachers posted assignments and checked in with students by phone and email but rarely gave lessons in real time.
The limited virtual lessons drew some complaints last school year. But now some parents and students say schools have swung too far in the opposite direction by cramming too much screen time into the school day.
“We spent eight hours on a Chromebook,” said Emaija West, a seventh-grader at Luis Muñoz Marin School, after classes ended Tuesday. “We can’t do eight hours every day because that’s going to give us a headache.”
Emaija and her sister, E’Jahna, who’s in eighth grade, also said they experienced some technical difficulties with Webex on the first day — the video froze at times and certain speakers were inaudible. Meanwhile, their brother, Ehris, who is in sixth grade, was unable to log into his online class until nearly 11 a.m., said their mother, Jaz West-Romero.
“It was a hot mess,” she said.
Other parents also described challenges logging into online classes, which some said was due to schools failing to share passwords or other login information in advance.
“My little one didn’t log on all day,” said the parent of a kindergartener who asked to remain anonymous because she teaches in the district. “There was no communication as to where he was supposed to go to log on.”
At the preschool where she teaches, only half of her 12 students showed up for online class Tuesday, the person said. She believes the main reason was that many of her students’ families lack the necessary technology.
“They don’t have computers,” she said. “They were looking for Chromebooks from Newark, but I don’t know what’s going on with that.”
The district has loaned thousands of laptops to students since remote learning started in March. However, schools did not have enough to give to every student and some laptops needed to be replaced, so the district has purchased additional devices.
But like school districts nationwide, Newark has faced delays in receiving the new laptops. On Tuesday, León said fewer than half of 6,500 recently ordered laptops had arrived.
“There’s a big demand that’s out there — not only in our requests, but throughout the state,” León said, adding that some of the new laptops are meant to replace ones whose warranties expired. He said any family that still needs a device should contact their school.
The superintendent also acknowledged that some students had trouble logging into their classes Tuesday. But he said schools responded swiftly to any first-day hiccups.
“There are some examples where everything got off to a really good start,” he said. “And other examples where things eventually got off to a good start.”