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COVID uptick prompts Newark schools to prep for potential shift to remote after break

An empty classroom is seen behind a small gate, with plastic barriers on every desk due to COVID concerns.

This week, Newark staff will help students and families prepare for a potential switch to remote learning after the winter break as COVID cases in the city trend upwards.

Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat

As COVID cases continue to rise, Newark schools are preparing to potentially switch to remote learning after winter break, which will start a day early for students, Superintendent Roger León announced Monday.

“With the number of positive cases on the upswing, we cannot let our guard down,” León said in a letter to the school community. “We are redoubling our efforts to be prepared for any necessary changes and a potential pivot to remote instruction.”

Schools throughout the city and state have seen a rise in the number of positive cases among staff and students in the weeks after the Thanksgiving break. Cases among staff and students throughout New Jersey schools sharply rose the week of Dec. 12 to 6,947, an increase of 79% from two weeks prior, NJ.com reported.

Entire classrooms and grades in Newark have already switched to remote learning ahead of the winter break, which for most schools is scheduled to start on Friday with a return on Jan. 3.

Newark Public Schools had an early dismissal scheduled for Thursday, but now students will have that day off, León said. A staff development day originally scheduled for January will be moved to Thursday, he added.

Before the break starts, school leaders and staff will help students and families with a remote instruction plan, including confirming the availability of technology, internet connectivity, materials, and all necessary links and codes to access virtual learning, Leon said in his letter.

“All students should be reminded to take their Chromebooks home this week,” he said.

When it comes to a potential shift to remote instruction, León said, “some may move to that point sooner than others, but we all will be prepared if and when necessary.”

There are plans to deep clean the school buildings during the break, he said.

In-person instruction and tutoring will resume after the break “unless circumstances warrant remote instruction for specific classes, groups, or schools,” León said, adding that weekly rapid testing would also resume in schools.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka urged school staff and students to get tested before returning to school after winter break.

“The state, the superintendent, should make sure that every kid, every adult is tested before they’re allowed to come back to school in January after the holidays,” Baraka said during a coronavirus briefing on Monday.

Baraka reinstated a mask mandate for residents and visitors in all indoor public spaces, such as supermarkets and gyms, and said more restrictions would return if the city’s positivity rate continued to rise. There were 1,682 new positive cases in the city since Friday, averaging about 561 cases per day, he said.

“These numbers are jumping badly, not just here but all over the state,” Baraka said.

Gov. Phil Murphy and New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichelli said at a news conference Monday that they were considering a “test to stay” program for after the holiday break that would allow students who are close contacts to stay in school during their quarantine period by testing negative.

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