Newark is pushing back its planned school reopening from this month to April, district officials announced Wednesday — a decision that means students will have spent more than a year learning remotely.
The delay, which Superintendent Roger León shared with families and staff members Wednesday evening, comes amid a continuing surge of coronavirus cases in Newark and pressure from the city teachers union to keep classrooms closed. It is the third time this school year that the district has postponed reopening school buildings since they shut down in March.
“In Newark, we are at a critical stage in the fight against Covid-19, and the health and safety of students and staff remain my top priority,” León said in the letter. “Based on what we know today, and in consultation with the Newark Health Department, I have weighed many factors and decided to continue remote instruction until after Spring Break.”
Students who opt in will return to classrooms part-time beginning April 12. Families also can request that their children continue learning virtually until the end of the school year.
Though online learning is now set to continue for at least three more months, some employees and students will trickle into classrooms before then, León’s letter said. Non-instructional employees will report to schools and the district’s central office next week, and some teachers will return to schools on Jan. 19 — presumably if they choose to teach remotely from their classrooms. In addition, some students will receive in-person counseling and special-education services beginning Jan. 25.
The district will also continue distributing bagged meals at 22 locations and the city will reopen public sites where students can take online classes under adult supervision while their parents work, according to a message on the district’s Facebook page.
The pandemic has rocked Newark, which averaged more than 140 new virus cases each day since Dec. 30, Mayor Ras Baraka said Monday. The city’s three-day COVID-19 test positivity rate was over 15% as of Dec. 24, Baraka added — about double the rate in late October, when the district last postponed in-person learning.
“We are at war with this virus,” Baraka said Monday on Facebook Live. “The virus is overtaking our community.”
León has watched infections rise for weeks, and said as far back as November that he was “really concerned” that in-person learning might not be possible this month. And yet the district continued to move forward with plans to reopen this month, even telling staffers this week to get tested for COVID-19 in preparation for their return.
Those messages alarmed many teachers and prompted the head of the Newark Teachers Union to urge León to call off this month’s reopening.
“We don’t think it’s safe to reopen,” union president John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Monday. “Right now, we’re doing everything in our power to try to stop it.”
Newark is not the only New Jersey district to extend remote learning. Jersey City Public Schools announced Tuesday that students will continue online learning through April 21, and several other districts recently switched to all-remote learning, from a hybrid model. Still, the majority of the state’s districts are at least offering some in-person learning.
Newark’s decision to keep students at home is likely to reassure many families and teachers who are worried about in-school infections. Yet the extension of remote learning will also pose a hardship for working parents and students separated from their peers, and threatens to worsen the learning loss that students are likely to face due to the prolonged school closures.
“Since last school year, every Covid-related decision I have made, has weighed heavily on me because I know each of these decisions has profound implications for all of your lives,” León said in his letter. “I have asked you to be flexible and patient, and I appreciate everyone’s willingness to do so.”