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Newark schools may go mask-optional in May if COVID case numbers remain low

A COVID-19 at-home rapid test package is opened on a table as someone dips a swab into the tube that is included with the kit.

Newark students and staff must take COVID-19 rapid tests at home on Sunday, the day before returning to schools from spring break.

George Frey / Getty Images

Newark Public Schools students and staff might be allowed to drop their face masks starting May 2, if the COVID infection rate in the district remains low, the teachers union president said.

The decision to ease the district’s face mask mandate and other COVID-related rules will depend on results from at-home rapid tests students and staff must take on Sunday, the day before they return to school from this week’s spring break. The district distributed the test kits to families and staff members before spring break began April 18.

“If the numbers continue to hold, we’ll be mask optional by the first week of May,” John Abeigon, the Newark Teachers Union president, said on Thursday. Citywide and districtwide positive test numbers were relatively low the week before spring break, according to the latest data available.

Staff members will need to upload their rapid-test results to the employee portal, Abeigon said. Parents and caregivers will need to reach their child’s school nurse to report a positive result. Another round of rapid tests will be administered in schools during the week, Abeigon added.

Abeigon said Superintendent Roger León briefed union leaders earlier this week on plans to roll back some COVID mitigation policies if results from the at-home tests show a “low number” of positive cases. A district spokesperson did not respond to emails asking for more details on these plans.

The district would also end temperature checks and the symptom screening questionnaire on May 2, he said. León shared those plans at a school board meeting last month.

The statewide mask mandate for schools and childcare centers dropped March 7, but district leaders were able to keep requiring masks in their schools. Newark, the state’s largest district, with 37,000 students, kept its mask rules in place, as did Paterson, New Brunswick, and Trenton.

León started easing other mitigation rules by removing desk shields and footwear sanitizing stations. State and federal guidance did not include either of those measures at the start of this school year.

And at the board meeting last month, León said water fountains would be turned back on for the first time this school year. León has said the fountains were shut off as a COVID mitigation effort, even though that step was not recommended in any state or federal guidelines either.

Chalkbeat found the district did not complete lead testing before buildings reopened in September.

The district’s COVID-19 dashboard shows positive tests were low across schools in the weeks leading up to spring break. 

The week before break, the district reported 18 positive cases among students and 15 among staff. Those numbers were slightly up from the previous week, but still significantly lower than the hundreds of positive cases the district saw before winter break.

Citywide, too, confirmed cases of COVID-19 have remained low for a few weeks, according to figures city officials shared on Facebook this week. The city’s seven-day rolling average showed a 3.25% rate of positive tests on April 15, slightly up from 2.72% on April 11, but well below the 38% rate in late December, before students were to return from winter break. At that time, the district decided to switch to remote learning for two weeks after the break ended.

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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