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As Newark schools reopen amid COVID, will some families keep their children home?

Masked second grade students walk up a stairwell, with one boy raising his arms in the air to practice arm’s-length social distancing.
As Newark schools reopen Tuesday, many parents say they’re ready for their children to return — but others say they remained worried about safety.
Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat

To Luz Ortiz, the coronavirus is not an abstraction. It’s terrifyingly real.

The virus tore through her home earlier this year, infecting her and her daughter, son, and granddaughter, and it sent her brother-in-law to the hospital. He didn’t survive.

That harrowing experience is why Ortiz plans to keep her son home when the new school year begins Tuesday, rather than let him return to Barringer High School, where he is set to begin the 11th grade.

“I’m terrified to send him back to school,” Ortiz said Monday, adding that she hopes to homeschool her son at least temporarily.

Ortiz is one of nearly 40,000 Newark residents who have tested positive for COVID; thousands more have watched a mother or father, sister or brother, son or daughter get sick. Since the pandemic began, COVID has killed nearly 1 in 300 Newark residents, shattering families and traumatizing those left behind.

Among those tens of thousands of Newarkers who have seen COVID’s cruelty up close are parents like Ortiz, who feel alarmed about school buildings reopening. Because New Jersey has taken remote learning off the table this school year, just two options remain: in-person learning or homeschool.

The district and politicians have spent weeks trying to reassure families at public events and meetings that schools are safe, even as the highly contagious delta variant fuels yet another surge of COVID cases. But even school board members acknowledged recently that some parents still were unsure whether and how schools would protect their children.

In the spring, when Newark Public Schools reopened classrooms part time, about 60% of families decided to keep their children home. And applications for seats this school year declined by 34% compared to last year, a sign some families were wary of their children returning.

The vast majority of families are expected to choose classrooms this fall. But the nationwide rise in homeschooling during the pandemic — especially among Black families — suggests a small but significant minority of families might keep their children home.

“There are a lot of parents that are saying that they’re not going to send their kids back to school,” said Newark Board of Education Member Flohisha Johnson at a meeting last month.

Yet homeschooling is not an option for many working parents, said LaMonica McIver, a Newark councilwoman whose own daughter is starting kindergarten this week. Other parents want their children to return to classrooms because they struggled with schoolwork or mental health over the past year, she added.

Even if most Newark families do send their children back, no doubt many parents will feel mixed emotions Tuesday morning when their masked children line up for hand sanitizing and temperature checks before the first day of school even begins.

“I think many parents just have this knot in their stomach about the safety of sending their kids back,” McIver said. They feel “uncertain and unsure.”

Families of the Newark school district’s roughly 37,000 students got a preview of reopening last month. That’s when most of the city’s charter schools, which enroll about 20,000 students, started classes. While their first weeks were mostly uneventful, Robert Treat Academy had to temporarily revert to remote learning after 11 staff members tested positive for COVID, and an infection at a KIPP school forced some people to quarantine.

State and local officials are doing their best to convince families that, despite the occasional brief shutdown, schools will be safe this fall.

Gov. Phil Murphy imposed universal masking in schools and ordered all school employees to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León recites the district’s safety protocols at every public appearance, and principals held virtual family meetings last month where they reviewed safety plans and answered questions.

At a backpack giveaway that Councilwoman McIver hosted last month, several parents said their children had felt isolated and distracted during virtual learning and needed to be back in school.

“It’s having the hands-on learning,” said Alleesah Thwreatt, whose three children attend KIPP charter schools. “They learn better that way.”

Yet other parents remain wary. Some fear that children under age 12, who are not yet eligible to receive the COVID vaccine, could be especially vulnerable to the delta variant. Some parents worry about making young children wear masks all day, while others say they have received limited information from their schools.

“There are several organizations and families and parents who are still not understanding how schools are reopening,” Board Member Asia Norton said at an Aug. 21 meeting, where she asked if the district could send representatives into the community to provide information. (In a later interview, Norton said the district sent out community liaisons after the meeting.)

At the same meeting, Board Member Shayvonne Anderson said the district had taken every possible precaution to reopen schools safely. Yet, she said, she had heard some families say they want to keep their children home.

“If you feel like that’s something you’re really steadfast about, then you can homeschool your child,” she said, noting that New Jersey gives families that right.

Nélida Figueroa, who’s both a parent and classroom aide at Park Elementary School, said some of her friends said they plan to homeschool their children this year. Other parents have called her to ask if she thinks school will be safe.

She’ll be taking her own daughter into school Tuesday, in large part because Figueroa herself has to get back to work. And while she believes it will be safe, she’s still anxious.

“I’m trying to stay positive for my child and the students and their parents,” she said last week. “But it is nerve wracking. It’s scary.”

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