Newark schools reopen to in-person learning with vaccine rules in place

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NEWARK, New Jersey — The largest school district in New Jersey completed its first day of school Tuesday, with all students attending in person, and all teachers required to be vaccinated against Covid, or get tested weekly by October 18.  

The conditions are similar to those established for the public school opening in New York City — the largest school district in the country.  Its new school year begins next week, and some education policy analysts say that the Newark school kick-off could be an example for New York, for better or worse.

Two things about Newark’s first day of universal in-person instruction were palpable: excitement, and concern.

Liz Estevez Rosario, a seventh grader at the Rafael Hernandez School for the Performing Arts, expressed some of her first-day emotions.

“I was nervous because, like, Covid, you know?” she said. “But I try not to think of that because I get really nervous.”

The 12 year-old was back in the classroom on Tuesday for the first time since the pandemic started. Even though Newark’s Board of Education gave an option this past spring for students to attend school in person, Estevez Rosario’s family chose to keep her at home.  

This school year, there’s no option. If a student does test positive for Covid, schools here have protocols in place for closing classrooms, quarantining, and making remote learning available.

For now, said Estevez Rosario, the seventh grader, “I was really excited to meet my new teacher, and I really missed my friends a lot.”

Like every other student and teacher, she was required to get her temperature taken before entering the school. No student is permitted if they show any Covid symptoms. All students are kept three feet apart, and there are sneeze guards on every desk. All students, from pre-K to 12th grade, are masked.

Natasha Pared, the principal at the Hernandez School, said that while it was an adjustment for the very youngest students, it was still a challenge that they met.

“They’re showing us that they can do it,” she said.  “We were really shocked that our three year-olds are doing such a wonderful job.”  

She said that even in pre-K, the students were keeping masks on and social distancing. 

Some 4,500 air sanitizing units have been distributed throughout Newark’s 64 schools. Some, like the Hernandez School, are outfitted with new HVAC units and filters in every classroom.  Some of the oldest schools in Newark have conditions in which air sanitation is more challenging.  

Issues like that, and providing safety from Covid generally, are among the reasons some Newark families are choosing to homeschool.

Roger Léon, the schools superintendent, said that he was familiar with the situation. 

“Their concerns and fears are real, and we get it,” he said, adding that high-quality, secure schooling is the way to ensure that every family comes back into the system.

“Our strategy,” Léon said, “is to create the most safe environment for their children to flourish.”

David Bloomfield, an education policy analyst at the CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, said that the similarities between Newark’s school opening this week, and the school year beginning in New York City next week are well worth noting. 

“We can celebrate the resilience of not only of our parents and our students, but our teachers and administrators who are going back to school under difficult and challenging circumstances,” Bloomfield said. “But we’re back. That’s the positive.” 

“But the unknowns also hover hauntingly,” he continued, ” and we’re going to see how many kids are actually going to show up, and how many kids are then quarantined because the virus has shown up, too.”

There are differences between the two school systems, most notably size. New York City has nearly 1.1 million students, according to the New York City Dept. of Education. Newark’s school district is 1/30th the size, with about 37,000 students, according to the Newark Board of Education.

However, Newark has a notably larger majority of students who are considered economically disadvantaged.  Nearly 83% of Newark students fit in that category, as opposed to 73% of New York City students.

The fact that so many children in the Garden State’s largest school district may not have easy access to many educational resources is why the principal of the Hernandez School says that her campus, as well as the others in Newark, are encouraging any holdouts to return.

“We do wish they’d call us,” Pared said. “It’s not too late.  It’s never too late.  We always welcome our babies back.”

She said that residents from anywhere in the city can show up at school in person to register, or can call their local school. They can also register online here.    

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