Six-year-old Leah Nyarko couldn’t wait to walk through her school’s hallways again and see her favorite teacher.
After six months away, she was back at her charter school in Perth Amboy, New Jersey -- dressed in the school’s red uniform. But this time her bag of her school supplies included hand sanitizer and extra face coverings.
“I just feel confident, I just want to be myself,” the first-grader said behind her blue mask as she waited behind a dozen other students and their parents for the school nurse to take her temperature.
Leah said it was nice to get some “fresh air.”
“I'm praying that I'm making the right decision,” her mom, Jackie Owusu, said. Owusu works as an essential worker in the health field, in Manhattan, and knows the risks of exposing her family to COVID-19. But she wanted her daughter to socialize with her peers and felt Middlesex County STEM Charter School was taking the necessary precautions.
“They can't stay home forever,” Owusu said, adding that she had no one to care for her daughter while she worked. “Me going to work and coming home, and it's the same as her going to school.”
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Leah is one of thousands of New Jersey students who returned to school this week for what will be an academic year unlike any other. Most logged on from home, as teachers taught from their house -- or from an empty school building. But some students went back to newly-configured classrooms, wearing masks and sitting at spaced-out desks behind plexi-glass shields.
About half of New Jersey’s nearly 800 districts, charter schools, and private schools that serve public school students with special needs are reopening with a mix of in-person and remote instruction, according to the state Department of Education’s list of approved reopening plans.
These hybrid plans mean kids can attend school part-time and learn at home the rest of the day. Or one group of kids learns virtually while another group attends in-person classes.
Another third of schools, 266, plan to reopen remotely. That includes large urban districts like Camden, Jersey City, and Newark.
“This is not something that we can get wrong,” Newark Schools Superintendent Roger Leon said. He rolled back his plan to offer in-person instruction this summer, instead opting to start the year virtually. Leon said he wanted everyone to have confidence that the district could keep staff and students safe before returning to school buildings.
“How better to build confidence in the school community than if a teacher can actually have a virtual instruction with her students?” he said, referring to teachers who are opting to teach from their school buildings. “They can see what their classroom is going to begin to look like when they return back in November.”
Schools were initially required to provide some in-person instruction until Governor Phil Murphy reversed course under pressure from parents and the state teachers union last month. He gave schools the flexibility to decide how to reopen -- even if that meant a fully remote start.
“New Jersey’s system of education has long been rooted in local control,” he said at a press conference in August.
School superintendents said the change in policy prompted more teachers to elect to teach remotely -- forcing many schools to start the year virtually. Still, 75 districts, charters, or private schools have opted for all in-person instruction.
Namik Sercan, the school leader for Middlesex County STEM Charter in Perth Amboy said about 50% of parents wanted their kids to return to class for a full day; the other half is learning remotely. The suburb is a working class neighborhood directly across the Arthur Kill from Staten Island.
“There's a big demand from the community for in-person education because people work here, they don't have the luxury of staying home,” Sercan said. He said he received calls from families in the local public school district -- which opted for fully remote learning -- about enrolling in the charter school because they didn’t have child care options.
Sercan runs another charter school, Central Jersey College Prep, in Somerset, a more upper middle-class community. At that school, about 40% of parents opted for in-person instruction and an earlier dismissal.
Space was reconfigured at both school buildings. Cubbies and lockers are off limits. There’s no carpet time and students don’t share supplies. High schoolers wipe their desks between classes and janitors patrol the hallways cleaning frequently-touched surfaces. There are desk shields in middle and elementary classrooms. Making jokes about having COVID-19 or teasingly coughing on fellow students has been added to the schools’ anti-bullying policy.
Third grade teacher Kelly Lawler says the changes will take time to get used to but she appreciated the two weeks of training staff received.
“Just ready for kids, you know. That's what it comes down to. But you don't get the same kind of interaction with them when they're virtual,” she said.
Still, a few teachers were uncomfortable coming back and Sercan said one resigned over the scheduling conflict. He said he would continue to meet with teachers to address their concerns.
A handful of schools that reopened this week have already run into challenges. Schools in Chatham, East Brunswick and Little Silver had students test positive for COVID-19 -- and temporarily transitioned to remote learning.
Sercan said before the first day of school was over a Somerset parent reported she tested positive for COVID. Her two sons -- in first and second grade -- also tested positive. A total of 35 kids and two teachers are now in quarantine.
“We did anything under our control to provide a safe learning environment,” he said. “But one parent can mess it up [and] sometimes it’s even beyond their control.”
State Health Commissioner Judy Perschilli said on Friday that none of the reported school cases were associated with “in school transmission” or related to “school attendance.” Her office did not say how many schools had students test positive this week.
Most schools that started the year remotely say they plan to resume in-person classes in the next two months. But what the pandemic will look like in the fall and how it will impact schools is something nobody can really plan for -- and yet another unknown this school year.