NEWARK, NJ — As parents, teachers, administrators and students agonize over what will happen if and when brick and mortar schools reopen, one man sees as an array of possibilities.
New Jersey released reopening guidelines at the end of June that leaves school districts with some universal policies, but essentially writing their own decisions otherwise. Ronald Chaluisán, executive director of the Newark Trust for Education, has managed to find a way to tune out all the catastrophizing when it comes to COVID-19 and education.
“Newark has a really strong core of people,” he said. “This is a blank slate, we don’t have to do what we’ve been doing. We have an opportunity to rethink what we’ve been doing.”
Newark, which is home to more than 55,000 students in the city’s various charter, private and traditional public schools, has a unique set of challenges come reopening time. Though it boasts the largest and one of the oldest public school districts in the state, its schools are still crowded, often built for a time that predates social distancing requirements.
Knowing this, the state is allowing alternate schedules that combine remote and in-person instruction to suit the needs of a district’s students and families.
The needs of students and families in Newark are complex, too — with more than 80% of the NPS student population qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, the district performed somersaults to get families the technology, like laptops and WiFi, they needed to learn remotely throughout the pandemic.
Schools distributed 11,000 Chromebooks, 4,000 of which now need replacing, and 10,000 more are needed for continued remote instruction, Superintendent Roger Leon said in June.
Chaluisan said access to remote lessons is where a conversation about responsibility is sorely needed before moving into the next academic year.
“Whose responsibility is it to make sure kids are connected and able to access online resources?” he said.
Stakeholders must start thinking about remote access as a household issue, not one of individual responsibility. Access is complicated by the competing interests of everyone in that household, such as multiple siblings and parents working remotely or trying to file for benefits.
A public-private partnership between the city and NPS, Chaluisan said, could result in a plan to get Newark’s households the level of connectivity they need to be successful.
“If we piecemeal it, it just doesn’t ultimately seem like it’s going to address the problem. But we know that we’re going to have some hybrid system moving forward, so it seems in the tea leaves that there will be local closures due to some outbreaks,” he said.
Gleaning feedback and input from community members and families should also be a priority for the district’s reopening strategy, according to Chaluisan. Especially in Newark, the state’s coronavirus epicenter, parents carry a lot of worry about their children's safety and want to feel heard.
Newark Trust for Education is advocating for the district to hold open forums for parents to talk about their concerns and add their input to the reopening plan.
“It’s not different than any other time in a lot of ways, what’s the one thing that parents need to know when they send their kids to school?” he said. “The answer, at least in my 35 years, has always been that parents want to know their kids are safe.”
Despite concerns about remote learning loss, Chaluisan also sees room for a positive outlook in students’ homes. NPS, which has been gearing up to implement more culturally relevant curricula, can leverage the rich offering of ethnic and cultural backgrounds of its students.
These alternative learning experiences can also contribute back to the community and benefit the social and emotional component of educating children, Chaluisan said.
“What an amazing opportunity to construct something with their families. Can we push ourselves to imagine a different set of types of learning experiences that are being dictated because the conditions changed, and not just try to replicate the conditions we had before this?”