NEWARK, NJ — As staff and students of the Newark Public Schools District prepare for a possible return to the classrooms this spring, the superintendent says the district is ready.

Superintendent Roger León said on Tuesday during a business board meeting that the district is currently on track for an April 12 return to in-class instruction after three attempts faltered to get students and educators back into classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We have been ready, and we will be extremely excited about that April 12th return,” León said. “It’s extremely important for everyone to be aware that as we have been moving these timelines, we are set on an April 12th return. There is a lot of work that we are doing and is underway in preparation for that soft launch.”

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The superintendent said at a January board meeting that as schools prepare for the anticipated return, the district plans to implement various resources to aid students as they transition from an extended virtual learning period with the implementation of various precautions and systems.

Since the fall, the district has made efforts to systematically reduce the need to service all of its students, but rather, begin to create a “sharper list” to enhance focus on students who may need more assistance in transitioning back into the classroom. 

León said that early on in the pandemic, the district felt that each student experienced a traumatic loss by not being with their friends and/or classmates, but there remained a need to identify and target certain students whose learning experience was seriously affected by the pandemic. District officials said they wanted to “intensify” their strategy to help students struggling with virtual learning by performing routine call-ins to students as well as other interactions.

As part of the district’s reopening plan, the superintendent issued a statement saying that every employee will be required to provide documentation of negative test results to return to in-person operations and the district will be implementing a retesting protocol as the year proceeds. 

The district’s website also lists protocols in place such as a four-step ingress procedure which includes a symptoms screening; a temperature check; footwear sanitizing; and hand washing/sanitizing. 

“The health and safety of students and staff have been our first priority, and will remain so,” he wrote. “As the nation and state prepare for reopening, we in Newark are confident that science will remain our guide.”

District officials also said that starting next week, surveys will be sent out to parents to answer questions regarding the model they choose to send their child back into school or to continue virtual learning until the end of the school year. 

Come April, the district proposed the implementation of a hybrid-model instruction. Students who opt for hybrid learning will return to classrooms part-time under restrictions. Bagged meals will still be provided at the district’s 22 meal locations and the dining schedule has not changed as a result of the delayed return, according to district officials.

“You will let us know what information is best suited for your child and family, and we will make sure that we get that information to your child’s teacher and principal,” the superintendent said. 

While the district may feel it’s prepared to return this spring, Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon told TAPinto Newark that a focus on testing for middle and high school students must be prioritized if the district plans to send students back to school. 

“In the two prior attempted returns, we felt that the district was ready to return in most cases, but the community was not ready,” Abeigon said. “Our concern turns to the asymptomatic middle schoolers and high school students who may contact it from a fellow student, an adult in the building or an adult in the community on the way to and from the building. We are strongly proposing that the community - the civic, faith and political leaders - be on the same page in terms of testing the middle school and the high school students as well.

“The schools can’t handle all of it. We have to educate them, safely, and we have to feed them breakfast and lunch. We can’t handle one more responsibility that is society’s responsibility. Society needs to step up,” Abeigon added. 

With an aim to get educators and district staff members vaccinated before opening, León said at a January board meeting that the plan for educators and district staff members who want the vaccine is to get the first dose in February and the second in March.

With the testing infrastructure already in place, the teachers union president said that an increase in vaccinations will decrease the frequency in testing, subsequently opening up testing slots for students. 

“Our goal is for everyone to return as soon as possible and as safely as possible,” Abeigon said. “We know that we are not expecting normalcy until, possibly, September. But let’s see how well we can do with the reopening in spring, and we are looking forward to a successful reopening, and a safe one. We have faith and confidence that will happen.”