Newark schools temporarily return to virtual learning to avoid post-holiday COVID spike

Out of nearly 100,000 public schools in the United States, more than 90 percent are back to in-person classes. But concerns over the spread of COVID has led some districts to close for the first two weeks of this new year, and move to virtual learning. Judy Woodruff takes a look at what's behind those decisions with chief Washington correspondent, Geoff Bennett.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    COVID surged over the holiday break, but most public schools returned to in person learning this week.

    Out of nearly 100,000 public schools in the U.S., more than 90 percent are back with in person classes. But concerns over the spread of COVID has led some districts to close for the first two weeks of this new year and move to virtual learning. About 3,500 schools are not back in person yet. That includes Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Newark.

    We are going to look at what's behind those decisions.

    And that gives me a chance to introduce our new chief Washington correspondent, Geoff Bennett. He has been a White House correspondent. He has long covered politics and many national stories.

    Welcome, Geoff. We are very glad to have you join us.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Well, Judy, thank you so much.

    It's a real privilege to get to work with you and the team and really contribute to the solid storytelling and the reliable reporting for which the "NewsHour" is known.

    And, Judy, as you mentioned in the introduction, this current spike in COVID cases is presenting a real challenge, not just for school officials and teachers, but also, as you can imagine, for students and parents.

    And to learn more about why one school district decided to return to virtual instruction, I spoke with Newark School Superintendent Roger Leon earlier today.

    Take a look.

    Superintendent Roger Leon, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for your time.

  • Roger Leon, Newark Public Schools Superintendent:

    Thank you, Geoff.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So, in your district, as I understand it, nearly 90 percent of classroom teachers are vaccinated, more than 80 percent of students over the age of 12 are vaccinated.

    Given all of that, help us understand your decision to switch back to remote learning, at least temporarily.

  • Roger Leon:

    Yes.

    So, we have been monitoring all of the COVID-19 positive numbers on a daily basis. And an interesting phenomenon occurred after Thanksgiving, three weeks afterwards, a spike in numbers, leading to our winter break. That became the really deciding factor to activate preparation plans for remote instruction, in case the numbers continued to rise.

    We did some mandatory testing during the holidays. And that is exactly what we decided to do, which was activate remote instruction starting on the 3rd, with an anticipated January 18 in person return date.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And what has the reaction been so far from parents who are now — now entering year three of dealing with this pandemic, those who have to deal with all of these disruptions that their kids face?

  • Roger Leon:

    Yes, absolutely, from scared, to concerned, to anxious.

    No one appreciates any type of disruption. That's one of the reasons why we activated it for a two-week time period. I didn't want to do it for one week, and then have them have to wait at the end of the week, and then activate it again for another week. That would be more concerning.

    So I share in all of the concerns of our parents. And getting kids back to school in person is the priority, obviously, over the course of the next two weeks.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    President Biden said today that school districts across the country have all the tests and tools they need to remain open, even given this resurgence in the pandemic. The governor of New Jersey has expressed much of the same thing.

    Do you feel like you have the guidance and the resources you need from the federal and state level to do that, to keep your schools open?

  • Roger Leon:

    In Newark, the not only guidance and support on ground has been absolutely incredible from the governor, as well as the mayor.

    So, our ultimate strategy is to work really hard at getting kids back into school, working hard during these next two weeks with our implementation of all of our curriculum changes during remote instruction to do just that.

    So, it's a coupling effect of what we're doing now, not to delay time, and then obviously getting kids back into school, so that we can address not only academic issues, but socioemotional learning needs of students as well.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Let's talk about those academic issues, because we now know the many ways that children are negatively impacted by these disruptions to their learning, not just the foundational issues, but also with their mental health.

    How are you planning to mitigate all of that and deal with it directly?

  • Roger Leon:

    Yes, so one of the most important pieces is that we in Newark didn't need a global pandemic to let us know the importance of addressing the needs of the students that are in our schools.

    So we have, from classroom teachers to our school counselors and social workers, really making both/and propositions as it relates to what are curriculum changes that we need to do to meet students where they are and get them to where we only know that their dreams will, in fact, be realized, as well as addressing a lot of what are some socioemotional learning needs that the students actually have as well.

    So, there's been a lot of separation that has occurred over the 15 months of the height of the pandemic. And we actually don't want anything to revert back to the hard work and undo the work that we started doing last April, and then obviously when everyone was in person this September.

    So, a lot of intentional efforts occurred over the winter break, where teaching staff members have provided some really good recommendations to make some adaptive changes as to what I'm calling the January reset for all students and staff starting yesterday.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And what's the level of morale among those teachers and staff, I mean, who are called on not just to educate students, but are now asked to be effectively public health officials and armchair epidemiologists?

  • Roger Leon:

    Yes.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    How are they holding up through all of this?

  • Roger Leon:

    Yes, so I think that your categorization of it is so accurate.

    We have asked our teaching staff members to go to that well again and to just draw a lot of energy. We know that our teachers are working extremely hard, as well as our students and their families, and definitely a lot of pressure on the leadership of our schools and our principals to really shoulder a lot of it.

    And we know that teachers are not left behind in that all-too-important work. So, it's both addressing their own needs in their — personally and in their families, as well as assisting them in supporting the needs of our students and their families as well.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Newark School Superintendent Roger Leon, thanks again for your time.

  • Roger Leon:

    Thank you, Geoff.

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