With winter break just days away, Newark schools are seeing a sharp spike in positive COVID-19 cases as the omicron and delta variants continue to fuel the latest surge, causing hundreds of students to switch to remote learning.
Throughout the city, entire classrooms have switched to remote learning in recent days, though an exact number is unknown, due to an increase in positive cases among staff and students. Even more schools are bracing for a possible return to remote learning if the latest COVID wave continues into next year.
COVID cases are on a drastic upswing across schools statewide, with staff rates trending higher than student rates, the state COVID-19 dashboard shows.
“Our numbers are growing exponentially and we have to keep an eye on that,” Mayor Ras Baraka said Wednesday, referring to cases citywide.
Traditional public schools and charter schools citywide are reporting more positive cases in the two to three weeks after Thanksgiving than they had in the first few months of school.
Nearly half of the 723 total positive cases among students and staff in Newark Public Schools were reported in the first two weeks of December. About 40% of the 66 total positive cases at Great Oaks Legacy Charter School also surfaced during that time frame. And more than half of the total positive cases at Marion P. Thomas Charter School emerged in a single week of December.
The city’s seven-day rolling average of positive COVID tests reached 9.01%, Baraka said during a coronavirus update on Facebook this week. That rate is more than four times higher than in mid-October, when only about 2% of tests were positive.
“This is growing and it’s growing fast,” Baraka said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that the omicron variant — which spreads more easily than the original strain of the coronavirus — accounts for 13% of new positive cases in New York and in New Jersey. The first case of the omicron variant in New Jersey surfaced on Nov. 28.
The New Jersey Department of Health released updated guidelines on Wednesday for schools that say students and staff who are considered close contacts only need to quarantine for seven days if they have a negative test result or 10 days without a test, instead of the previous 14-day recommendation.
“While a 14-day quarantine period is optimal, the CDC and [state] Department of Health recognizes the value of shortening quarantine in certain circumstances,” Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said.
Among the Newark students who switched to virtual learning this week were those from People’s Prep, a charter high school, as well as two KIPP high schools — Newark Collegiate Academy and Newark Lab High School — and multiple classes from across Newark Public Schools, Marion P. Thomas Charter School’s three campuses, and other charter schools.
Newark Public Schools and Newark KIPP schools, which together teach the overwhelming majority of Newark students, still don’t provide a dashboard to show current positive cases, making them outliers in the city and state among other large school systems.
KIPP spokesperson Jessica Shearer declined in an email to provide COVID data for its Newark schools.
There were 35 positive cases among Newark public school staff the week of Dec. 6 — that number more than tripled this week to 108, said district spokesperson Nancy Deering, who provided the data in an email.
In the same time period, cases among students grew from 72 to 117, Deering said
Four classrooms across Newark Public Schools had switched to remote learning ahead of winter break, Deering said, though she did not specify from which schools.
Parents and staff members from Malcolm X Shabazz High School expressed concern this week over rising positive cases and a lack of communication from the district.
Parent Yvonne Davis told Chalkbeat that the school did not notify her when someone in her child’s classroom tested positive for COVID; she only learned about the exposure by word of mouth. Davis immediately took her child to get tested, and the results were positive.
“Shabazz high school should be ashamed of themselves,” she wrote on Facebook this week. “I’m very pissed right now.”
On Thursday, Shabazz students told Chalkbeat that the school had notified them of a single COVID case. However, a school employee, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation, said staffers have heard the actual case count is much higher and includes both adults and students.
“This is being covered up,” the employee said. “There’s no transparency.”
The school held an emergency staff meeting Thursday afternoon where teachers were told to prepare for a possible return to remote learning, the employee said.
The employee added that the school has become more lax about COVID precautions, with many students and even some teachers declining to wear masks inside classrooms.
“I would say about 50% of the school population is not wearing masks,” the employee said. “These kids intermix, everyone is in each other’s face, nothing is social distanced.”
When asked about parent and staff concerns at Shabazz, Deering said concerns should be brought to the principal, the school’s pandemic response team, or the district. She said that masking and social distancing guidelines have not changed.
“We’ve seen an uptick as all the schools in the state have been seeing immediately after Thanksgiving,” said Pramod Shankar, managing director of operations and performance at Marion P. Thomas Charter School, which has a population of about 1,400 students across its three Newark campuses.
Twenty-nine cases, more than half of the K-12 charter school system’s 56 total positive cases this year, were reported the week of Dec. 13. Most of those cases came from Marion P. Thomas Charter High School and PAC Academy, a pre-K-8 school, according to the system’s dashboard. Prior to that week, the highest number of cases reported in a single week this school year was six.
Overall, 10% of students are currently doing synchronous virtual instruction across the charter school’s three campuses, while the rest are in person, Shankar said.
Principals of all three Marion P. Thomas campuses will hold emergency virtual town hall meetings on Monday to address families’ concerns prior to winter break that begins Dec. 24. There will be mandatory testing of vaccinated and unvaccinated Marion P. Thomas Charter School staff during and after the break.
“We’re expecting a spike,” Shankar said, referring to the return of students and staff on Jan. 3. “We’re bracing ourselves and instituting layered preventative methods, and doing everything in our power to lower how much of a hit we’re going to take immediately after winter break.”
At Great Oaks Legacy Charter Schools, there were 26 cases among students and staff in the first two weeks of December. In total, there are 66 total positive cases, the charter school’s dashboard shows. During the week of Nov. 29, there was an outbreak in one classroom of an elementary school, which caused seven students to quarantine.
About 31 cases were reported across North Star Academy schools during the week of Dec. 6, according to the charter school’s dashboard.
Extend winter break?
Districts across the country have decided to extend winter break by a few days, citing various ongoing issues seen so far this school year, including positive cases, low attendance, and staffing shortages.
Schools throughout Newark have had to tap administrative leaders to teach classes because of substitute shortages.
“It’s rough,” Shankar said, but there have not been any closures or switches to remote learning due to the shortage. “We are getting creative with our scheduling to accommodate any shortages while also having our administrators and other certified personnel in classrooms on days when many teachers are out due to illness.”
In New Jersey, schools would need to get the OK from the New Jersey Department of Education or Gov. Phil Murphy if they wanted to extend break with remote learning days.
Patrick Wall contributed reporting.