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Newark’s first day of school is Sept. 7. Here’s what you need to know.

A fourth grade student raises his hand in class. The photo shows the back of the student’s body with his hand in the air. The teacher is visible in the background of the photo, facing the camera. The teacher is wearing a face mask. The student’s desk is surrounded by plastic dividers.
This school year, all New Jersey students must return to classrooms, masks are mandatory, and teachers must be vaccinated or get tested for COVID weekly.
Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat

As Newark Public Schools students and staff re-enter brick and mortar schools on Tuesday for the first time after 17 months of virtual and hybrid learning, some classroom routines and procedures might feel familiar while others will be new.

COVID-19 has changed the school experience in myriad ways, from face masks to social distancing. It’s also reshaped the lives of students and educators beyond the classroom, with many directly impacted by the virus.

Unlike previous school years, educators say there will be a strong emphasis on developing and nurturing social and emotional skills and fostering supportive environments for staff and students. There will also be efforts to help students who lost ground academically during the ongoing pandemic.

Other classroom features will be new for students who didn’t opt for hybrid learning last spring. For starters, in Newark, classrooms will be equipped with “PPE kits,” or personal protective equipment, such as hand sanitizer, face masks, disinfectant sprays, and paper towels, and more tools meant to keep hands and surfaces clean. Desks will also have sneeze guards to serve as a protective barrier, and students will eat lunch in their rooms instead of cafeterias.

Here’s what else you need to know:

Fully in-person

Gov. Phil Murphy did not renew his executive order allowing virtual instruction during the pandemic. Once last school year ended, districts were told that students would be required to be fully in-person for the 2021-22 year, even if certain guidelines – such as social distancing – could not be followed.

New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice, a parent group formed following Murphy’s announcement last spring, is pressuring the governor for the option to keep their students learning remotely. Karen Strauss, one of the group’s founding members, has said some parents in the group with children who are immunocompromised are concerned about the delta variant, while others say their children did better academically and in terms of their mental health by learning remotely. An online petition asking for a virtual learning option has more than 25,000 signatures.

In the event of an outbreak or other emergency, however, districts are allowed to switch to remote learning, the governor’s office said.

It’s unclear if the district will have at least three feet of social distance between students and staff in every classroom when at full capacity this fall. State guidelines don’t mandate physical distancing but strongly encourage it “where possible.”

Universal masking

Murphy issued an executive order in August mandating universal maskings in schools for the start of the 2021-2022 school year. Students, educators, staff, and visitors must wear face masks inside all public, private, and parochial preschool, elementary, middle, and high school buildings, including charter and renaissance schools, the order states. Newark’s reopening plan, posted in June as a requirement for applying to federal funding, had already required universal masking for the fall.

Murphy also said written notice from a doctor will be required from anyone seeking an exemption from wearing a mask. He added that a parent request will not be enough to grant an exemption.

Vaccines

In the wake of rising COVID cases related to the highly contagious delta variant, Murphy also issued a mandate last month requiring all school employees to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by Oct. 18. By that time, if an employee has not submitted vaccination proof, they will be required to submit to weekly testing, the executive order states.

Newark’s plan states that employees can upload their proof of vaccination cards on the district’s employee platform.

During a virtual staff convocation in late August, Newark Superintendent Roger León said that the exact number of employees who have been vaccinated is unknown because they have not all uploaded their vaccine cards to the employee portal. He said around 60% of teaching staff have been vaccinated but did not provide exact figures.

Though at least one district in New Jersey has mandated vaccines for eligible students, Newark has not moved in that direction. The district has vaccination sites set up at various school buildings to encourage more teens to get vaccinated. About 45% of eligible Newark students — those ages 12 and up — have been vaccinated, León said last week.

Weekly testing and other safety measures

There will be weekly COVID testing available in school for students and staff members when class resumes, according to the teachers union and school administrators, though the district has not publicly announced its testing plan. Guardians will need to sign a consent form in order for students to be cleared for testing and the free tests will be optional for vaccinated employees.

Under Murphy’s new mandate, unvaccinated employees must be tested weekly. The state will provide funding to help districts pay for weekly testing of unvaccinated students and staff.

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

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