After a contentious board meeting on Tuesday, Newark Charter School is moving toward an accelerated hybrid reopening that could have all students back in classrooms at least two days per week by December.
Classes for more than 2,400 NCS students have been remote since the pandemic began in March. Last month, the board approved a plan to continue virtual learning through Thanksgiving break as pressure mounted from parents to return in-person.
Administrators kicked off Tuesday’s meeting presenting their plan for reopening with concurrent learning, a model they call ‘Room and Zoom’ in which teachers balance in-person and remote students. Depending on the number of students who opt to stay remote, each grade would have one in-person cohort in four days a week or two in-person cohorts in two days a week each.
Their initial timeline called for gradually bringing students back by grade level throughout December and January on two-week intervals. School Director Frank Newton said that among misinformation and divided opinions about the pandemic, the school wants to prioritize the safety of students and staff.
“The plan I’m about to present is not perfect, nor are we asserting that it is. In a pandemic, no plan is,” he said at the start of the meeting. “We will listen to the questions that come tonight, and we are working to address them.”
Many parents attending the meeting both in-person and online were dissatisfied and called on administrators to accelerate the schedule for bringing students back, though others defended the plan or even urged the school to further delay reopening.
Six-year NCS parent, volunteer and community member Wendi Jacobs pleaded with administrators to start in-person instruction sooner. She explained that she is worried about her sixth-grade son's academic, social, emotional and even physical well-being.
“There is a chance of any person in our community contracting the COVID virus, but there is 100 percent certainty that the damage being done to these children is going to continue,” Jacobs said. “Whether it’s this [plan] or whether it’s a modification to this one, please do it and please do it sooner.”
Christopher Meanor, an NCS high school science teacher, said that students would face their own learning challenges with a return to face-to-face classes. In an effort to mitigate viral spread, the in-person experience would be cold and sterile, he said, adding that the health risk is substantial even with safety strategies in place.
“The parents who seem to be in support of returning will never set foot in the building and never assume the risk they are advocating to subject us all to,” Meanor said. “You’re about to see a whole new wave of trauma from this experience.”
At some points, some board members seemed poised to reject the proposed plan altogether and mandate that administrators go back to the drawing board. Other members protested, arguing that the board should not mandate a timeline that the school found unfeasible.
Board Chair Adrian Soyer commended the work that administrators put in to coordinate the details of a safe reopening. However, he pushed the school to re-evaluate the schedule in light of the concerns from parents.
“As part of that evaluation, can you consider whether or not the timeline can be shortened?” he said, adding, “For myself, I’m 100 percent behind this plan. I think that you guys have done a phenomenal job putting this together.”
While Newton acknowledged drawbacks and challenges to any plan, he emphasized that shortening the timeline could lead to unexpected logistical difficulties with the rollout. He and other administrators asked parents to be forgiving.
“Do I believe this is the best plan to deliver the education to our students? The answer is no, I don’t believe that. I believe that to deliver our curriculum, it’s what we have,” he said. “If the board wants to drive a different agenda, then we will hear that. But again, we are shifting the goalposts with every meeting.”
After more than four hours of discussion, the board voted to approve the details of the school’s reopening plan, but directed administrators to come back next week to present an accelerated schedule for the board to review and vote on. The cohort structure of concurrent learning will remain in place, as will the other logistics of the rollout.
One option mentioned by Newton would bring back kindergarten and grades four, seven and nine on Nov. 30. A week later, students in grades one, two, five, eight and 10 would return, joined the following week by grades three, six, 11 and 12.
By Dec. 14, all students – except those who opt to stay remote – would be back on campus at least two days a week.
"That's one option, but there are 8 million other options," Newton said Thursday.
In the meeting, Newton expressed concern about an accelerated timeline, but committed that his administration would be up to the task.
“It’s scary. I’m not going to sit here and say that it’s not. It is extremely scary and it is something that we are very nervous about,” Newton said. “With the patience of our families, we will be looking for solutions.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the school approved an accelerated timeline for reopening. While the board directed the administration to present an accelerated timeline for consideration, it did not approve it. An earlier version of this article also gave an incorrect grade for Wendi Jacobs' child.