Schools are closed. Kids, families, and teachers are stressed. As I work tirelessly, as a veteran teacher and community organizer, with kids and families to adjust, the most common question I get is: “Mr. Luna, when can we go back to school?”

As a teacher, the answer is a quick “when it’s safe.” As an organizer with Newark for Educational Equity and Diversity (NEED), a grassroots and solutions based organization in Newark, I know this is ultimately a question of policy.  

While Governor Murphy has closed schools for the 2019-2020 school year, the question of how and when to reopen school buildings isn’t finalized. The truth is there is a lot of uncertainty that will decide how and when to reopen schools. Even with all the unknowns, there is one thing for certain: students, parents, and teachers (known as the “village”) must be actively involved in the decision making to ensure families are confident their children will be safe. 

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To bring village voices into the decision making conversation, NEED distributed a community survey in early May. The survey sought input from stakeholders regarding reopening schools, addressing learning loss, and the future of education. Based on the responses of over 100 members of the Newark village, I, and NEED, am making the following recommendations to any decision maker tasked with reopening schools:   

  1. Let the data be your guide. According to NEED survey results, 44% of respondents are willing to send their children to school when the numbers--meaning trends and data--indicate that it is safe. Many stakeholders stated that they would believe it is safe when infection and mortality rates are extremely low or completely flat. While I understand these factors aren’t in the direct control of decision makers, this data makes it clear that community members are relying on the numbers for a sense of safety. 
  2. Create a plan. The NEED survey revealed 41% of education stakeholders require transparent plans and protocols that address the safety of all students and staff, including sanitation routines and infection-response strategies. Respondents further indicated that they need strong communication between schools and families, in addition to accessible COVID-19 testing programs. Once the data says it’s safe, school districts and their broader communities must develop comprehensive plans and protocols to keep kids safe. To meet this criterion, two questions should be asked and answered by decision makers. First, what is the plan for daily sanitization, social distancing, and safety? Second, what happens if/when a student, parent, or staff member contracts Covid?
  3. Consult the village. The social, emotional, physical, and intellectual growth schools provide is essential to human development which is why it’s so important schools reopen. Even so, we know that asking parents and families to send their children back to school will require a strong sense of trust. The key to building community trust is to include the community in the decision-making process. An easy win for leaders on this issue is to host virtual community roundtables once plans and protocols have been created. This will allow reopening plans to receive meaningful feedback and for the community to develop trust in the plans that are being created.

I, and NEED, applaud the energy, effort, and time spent by any leader, committee, or task force working on this issue. Great care must be taken to ensure the conditions are safe for school reopening and there is enough planning to keep kids, families, and teachers safe. To that end, it is critical for any decision maker to include the village in the process. Our kids deserve the best, and we know  more community input on this decision will yield the best results.

When I get a call from a student asking: “Mr. Luna when can we go back to school?”

I want to be able to say to them “There’s a community meeting about this. Want to join me to share your ideas?”

We know that when it comes to education, it takes a village. Now is the time for leaders to listen to what the village has to say. 

Thomas Luna is a veteran educator in Newark and Co-Chair of the solution based grassroots organization Newark for Educational Equity and Diversity (NEED). You can learn more about NEED by visiting www.neednj.org.