School had been in session less than a week when first graders at McKinley Elementary School were sent home. Someone in their classroom had tested positive for COVID.
They were among the first students at their Newark school ordered to quarantine, but they wouldn’t be the last. Since classes started Sept. 7, dozens of students across multiple grade levels have had to quarantine for 10 days at a time, according to parents and staffers.
But rather than inform families, the school appears to have kept that information under wraps. As a result, some families said this week they weren’t aware of any quarantined students or COVID cases at McKinley.
“We’re not allowed to tell other parents about it,” said a McKinley parent whose children in first and fourth grade had to quarantine this month. She declined to give her name for fear of angering administrators. “The first thing they tell you is: Don’t tell anybody, don’t speak to nobody.”
McKinley, whose principal did not respond to email or phone messages, isn’t the only school in Newark with a don’t-tell policy.
The city school district and most charter schools have not publicly released their COVID case counts or quarantine numbers since classes started. Like McKinley, some schools don’t even inform everyone in the building, instead only notifying families and employees about cases in their particular classrooms. Adding to the uncertainty, the Newark school district has yet to launch the weekly COVID testing it planned to offer students this fall.
Why the secrecy around case counts?
Local officials note that student-privacy laws limit what information they can share. However, the U.S. education department has made clear that schools can inform families and employees, the public, and media about COVID cases as long as individual students are not identified. In fact, many of the school districts surrounding Newark list COVID case counts on their websites.
Officials also have said sharing school COVID numbers could provoke unnecessary alarm. However, the lack of testing and transparency appears to have done just that — fueling rumors and fraying nerves as parents and school staffers are left to speculate about COVID’s spread within the city’s newly reopened classrooms.
“It leaves people feeling uneasy,” said Nadirah Brown, whose daughter is in the seventh grade at a district school. “We’re left in the dark.”
Transparency varies by state, district
The limited disclosure starts at the top.
Unlike some states, including Connecticut and North Carolina, New Jersey does not share school-level COVID case counts. While New Jersey says schools “should be encouraged” to report case counts to the state health department, the state does not release that data. Instead, it lists the number of “school outbreaks” — three or more linked COVID cases — per county.
Across New Jersey, children 17 and under account for about 13% of COVID cases, according to state data.
Some school districts have opted for greater transparency. Newark’s neighbors, including the Jersey City, Elizabeth, East Orange, and South Orange & Maplewood districts, all publish online the number of COVID cases by school and district-wide.
But Newark, the state’s largest school system with some 37,000 students, has withheld that information from the public. Staffers at five different Newark public schools told Chalkbeat they suspect COVID cases have cropped up at their schools but have no way of knowing for sure.
“Teachers are really working in fear,” said an employee at McKinley.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has ordered school employees to get vaccinated or tested weekly, but students face no such mandate. Newark has encouraged eligible students to get the vaccine, and the district had planned to provide weekly COVID testing with the help of state funding. But nearly three weeks after students returned to school, the district still hasn’t started weekly testing.
“It would help if they got tested week to week,” said Veronica Gillon, a teacher’s aide at Thirteenth Avenue School. “The unknown is what stresses you out the most.”
A city spokesperson referred questions about the number of COVID cases in Newark schools to the school district. A district spokesperson and Superintendent Roger León did not respond to emails.
Dr. Mark Wade, director of the Newark health department, told Chalkbeat that schools will start weekly COVID testing in the coming days. On a WBGO radio segment last week, he said a team of roughly 50 contact tracers in his department investigates all COVID cases, including those in schools. However, he suggested that families will only be notified if there is a positive case in their child’s class.
“We always want to make sure that all of the parents in the classroom know that there was a positive child,” he said.
In some districts, teachers unions have demanded more transparency about school COVID cases. In Philadelphia, the district responded by launching a public COVID tracker.
However, the head of the Newark Teachers Union said he is fine with the district only informing people of cases in their classrooms.
“I have no problem with a need-to-know basis,” said union President John Abeigon. “We’re not a fan of yelling ‘fire’ where there is none.”
For now, teachers are left guessing.
“Our administration doesn’t tell us anything,” said a staffer at East Side High School, who has heard rumors about two COVID cases at her school. “Nothing, nothing, nothing.”
No public tally of charter school COVID cases
Newark’s charter schools, which enroll more than 20,000 students, also have been tightlipped about COVID cases.
Shortly after KIPP TEAM Academy started classes in August, the school informed Anita Crawford that her son Carlton had to quarantine because he was in “close contact” with someone who tested positive for COVID in his sixth grade class. For students, close contact is defined as spending 15 minutes or more within 3 feet of someone.
Federal guidance only says schools should notify close contacts about positive cases, though it doesn’t prohibit schools from wider disclosure. KIPP chose only to inform close contacts about the positive case in Carlton’s class; the families of other students in the classroom were not notified. In fact, Crawford said, the school even advised her against telling the parents of the children in Carlton’s carpool.
“What I have experienced is, if it’s not your child who’s a close contact, then you don’t know,” Crawford said. “We have to go through word of mouth.”
Spokesperson Jessica Shearer said KIPP New Jersey investigates all suspected COVID cases in its schools. The charter operator has not found any “widespread outbreaks” or had to close any buildings, she added.
KIPP New Jersey has also started to inform all families and employees when there is a COVID case in their school, in addition to notifying close contacts about possible exposure. However, KIPP still will not say how many cases have been reported in each school or across the charter network.
“We know transparently sharing this information is key, but can also be anxiety-producing for families,” Shearer said in an email last month.
Other schools have been more forthcoming.
A spokesperson for Great Oaks Legacy, which operates six Newark charter schools, said it briefly closed its high school and middle school last month to allow for COVID contact tracing. Legacy, one of the network’s elementary schools, had to close a classroom this week due to a positive case.
In total, six students and six staffers have tested positive for COVID since classes started Aug. 9, the spokesperson said. With more than 2,000 students and 400 employees, the positive cases represent 0.5% of the Great Oaks Legacy community, he added.
“We’re proud of all of the steps we’ve taken thus far to ensure we are keeping our students and staff safe amid ever-changing circumstances,” said a statement from the network’s executive director, Jared Taillefer, who added that 80% of staffers are vaccinated.
A spokesperson for North Star Academy, Newark’s largest charter operator, would not share the schools’ case count. Jada Lee, who has two children at North Star schools, said the schools should inform families about any positive cases.
“They should let people know,” she said.