Updated: Newark families and educators are cautiously preparing for students to return to classrooms Tuesday, some two weeks after the district reverted to remote learning due to a surge in COVID cases.
The district announced Friday evening that in-person learning would resume on Jan. 18, as planned. Schools had signaled in recent days that classrooms would soon reopen, and the Newark Teachers Union president told members to “assume that we are going back.”
Some new data appear to support reopening, including a slight decline in the city’s rate of positive COVID tests, according to Mayor Ras Baraka, who said Friday that “our numbers are continuously tiptoeing down.” However, the positivity rate remains high, at about 28%, and hundreds of school employees continue to test positive each week.
While they awaited word from the district, some Newark parents and teachers expressed ambivalence about the return. They recognize that remote learning is difficult for many students and working parents who must rearrange their schedules to supervise their temporary homeschoolers. Yet they also recall the spike in school COVID cases last month due to the highly transmissible omicron variant, and worry about a repeat if classrooms reopen.
“The best place for them to be educated is in school,” said Ruby McGaskill, an eighth grade English teacher at Chancellor Avenue School. “But we also want to be safe.”
Statewide, schools that sent students home this month due to the COVID surge are starting to reopen. About 20% of New Jersey schools were operating remotely this week, down from about 35% the previous week, according to state officials. Jersey City is among the districts planning to welcome students back to classrooms next week, citing a decline in employee infections.
By contrast, the Paterson school district decided to extend remote learning at least through Jan. 24. Other districts, including Bloomfield and Montclair, are allowing families to choose between in-person or virtual learning.
The Newark Public Schools website was updated Friday to say that in-person learning would restart on Jan. 18, adding: “Newark Public Schools are back!”
This week individual schools held virtual family meetings and posted on social media telling students to prepare for next week’s return. In a Facebook video posted Friday, the principal of Bard High School Early College Newark told the school community to expect a safe reopening next week.
“I have heard that there are many of you facing this reopening with some trepidation or anxiety,” said Dr. Carla Stephens, “and I wanted to reassure you that we are ready.”
Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon said in a letter to members this week that the expectation “for now” is that students and staffers will be back in schools on Jan. 18. But he added: “As we have seen, things can change rapidly,” and told members they would be notified of any changes.
In an interview, Abeigon said he is encouraged by reports that new infections appear to be slowing in several cities, including Newark, where new cases soared last month. He added that he believes the district’s safety measures, including mandatory masking and staff vaccinations, have worked, and that individual classrooms or even schools could be shut down in the event of an outbreak without moving the entire district back to remote learning.
“Like everyone else, I’m feeling a little bit of confidence and anxiety at the same time,” he said.
One potential obstacle for reopening is keeping schools staffed. Out of some 3,000 teachers and school employees who were tested for COVID over winter break, as required by the district, about 11% tested positive, Abeigon said. Infections continued during remote learning, with the district reporting 338 new employee cases from Jan. 3-9.
Before winter break, some schools faced severe staff shortages. One elementary school teacher said substitutes are in such short supply that art and gym teachers occasionally had to fill in for missing teachers or classroom aides. Many custodial and cafeteria workers also were out, which at one point forced an administrator to do kitchen duty, the teacher said.
“We have seen crazy stuff,” she told Chalkbeat this week. “You never imagine you’d see your vice principal cooking lunch.”
Working in the district’s favor, nearly 90% of teachers are vaccinated, which greatly lowers their risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID. Also, under new state guidelines, school employees and students who test positive for COVID now need only quarantine for five days instead of 10, which should help limit disruptions.
The district will resume weekly in-school COVID testing when buildings reopen, Abeigon said. However, as of last month, just under a third of the district’s roughly 38,000 students had submitted consent forms from their parents or guardians allowing them to be tested.
A teacher at one elementary school said only about five of her 14 students turned in consent forms. With the limited student testing and high case count in New Jersey, the teacher said she would prefer to see remote learning extended for a while longer.
“Even though I’d rather have my kids there” in school, she said, “I still don’t think it’s safe.”
Some Newark parents also feel conflicted about the prospect of schools reopening on Tuesday.
Lisa Gordon said she doesn’t feel good about sending her two daughters back to Harriet Tubman School next week because she has seen so many people around them get sick. But she also believes they learn best in person.
“You don’t want your kids to be behind,” she said.
Her husband, Kerone Jackson, said he was “50/50” about schools reopening. While remote learning is tough for students and parents alike, he said, he wouldn’t mind seeing it last a little longer until the infection rate falls further.
On Thursday, he was preparing mentally to send his daughters back to school — but with a big caveat.
“If I hear of one case in my child’s classroom, I will pull them out,” he said. “I can’t risk mine.”