NEWARK, NJ — Just a few days after Newark Public Schools suddenly extended its remote learning period to Jan. 25, Superintendent Roger Leon cast doubt on whether that deadline will be possible as the city’s infection rates skyrocket.
The school district is already feeling the impact, according to Leon. More than 100 district employees have tested positive since March, and in the past two weeks, employees tested positive at a rate unlike any that school officials have seen since reporting began, Leon said. Mayor Ras Baraka announced emergency restrictions for businesses and activities on Monday following the city’s jump to an 11.9% positive COVID-19 infection rate over the weekend.
On Tuesday, Newark reported an increase of 162 cases, the highest increase since the virus’s peak in April.
“These numbers were not what they are right now, and we moved from (returning to schools) in November to pushing it to January. The numbers right now are worse than the numbers I was looking at when I made the very hard decision to move into January,” Leon said during the Board of Education’s virtual business meeting Tuesday night.
Students in Newark were originally scheduled to return to school after Thanksgiving, but on Oct. 22, the district pushed the date back for the third time. While Baraka stopped short of saying whether students should return at all this school year, Leon suggested Tuesday that the district may already be reconsidering its newest return date.
“I’m very concerned about January today given these numbers,” Leon said.
In Newark, 672 residents have succumbed to COVID-19 since March, and while deaths have slowed, the staggering increase in positive cases has officials on edge. Nationally, more than a record 500,000 cases have been reported in the past week, prompting many cities to enter partial lockdowns or impose new restrictions.
New York City became the first major city in the United States to reopen its schools and has so far seen relatively few cases, but spikes threaten to undermine that success. In New Jersey, about 500 districts have welcomed students back, a move Gov. Phil Murphy has pushed due to concerns about social and academic development, students missing out on services and childcare.
For Newark's 36,000 students, the so-called second wave of the virus will likely mean more time learning via screen. Board member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas raised concerns about the social and emotional well-being of students after receiving feedback from several of them who said they are struggling with remote learning.
“While this isn’t a universal experience for every single student, it’s important to uplift that this is a really difficult time and that idea of remote learning being extended to January raises real concerns for our kids in terms of academic supports and mental health,” Murray-Thomas said.
Leon acknowledged that the district is not doing enough to address social and emotional learning during the pandemic, but said that this team is looking at several organizations to assist with providing supports for students.
“We need to do the actual type of counseling that will help our students in this process,” he said. “Are we doing better? We’re doing really well, and I would caution that ‘really well’ means ‘not good.’”