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In June 2020 Newark Superintendent Roger León announced that “99.8% of Newark students were present for each day of remote learning,” even though 20% were chronically absent. (A teacher said that staff was told to mark students present even when they’re absent.)
The following December León told those assembled at a school board meeting to “not assume any [learning] loss among district students,” even though a buried district analysis found “nearly 80% of third graders and almost 90% of fourth graders would not meet the passing score…The projections suggested that far fewer students were on track to master grade-level math than in previous years.”
And, now, in a new report from Chalkbeat, “dozens of students across multiple grade levels have had to quarantine for 10 days at a time” but the district “appears to have kept that information under wraps,” away from parents and even staff. Said one parent whose 1st and 4th graders were quarantined, “The first thing they tell you is: Don’t tell anybody, don’t speak to nobody.” A staff member said, “Teachers are really working in fear.”
León owns his lack of transparency about things he’d rather not speak about even if Newark residents and voters have the right to know. Yet it’s not all on him, at least in regards to clear information over COVID transmission; after all, he reports to the city Board of Education who appear to believe that best practices include keeping important data from the public.
But Chalkbeat’s Patrick Wall accurately pins ultimate responsibility on the Murphy Administration’s Department of Education:
The limited disclosure starts at the top.
Unlike some states, including Connecticut and North Carolina, New Jersey does not share school-level COVID case counts. While New Jersey says schools “should be encouraged” to report case counts to the state health department, the state does not release that data. Instead, it lists the number of “school outbreaks” — three or more linked COVID cases — per county.
But that’s par for the course with our hobbled Department of Education, which has left much up to individual districts by either being completely AWOL or only issuing vague guidance on what COVID information districts must release to the public.
Newark district schools aren’t the only one’s tight-lipped about COVID numbers; some of the larger charter networks in the city, like KIPP, are equally taciturn. One KIPP parent said, “What I have experienced is, if it’s not your child who’s a close contact, then you don’t know. We have to go through word of mouth.”
This lack of transparency doesn’t bother Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon, who says, “I have no problem with a need-to-know basis. We’re not a fan of yelling ‘fire’ where there is none.”
Yet who gets to define what qualifies as “fire”? Or learning loss? Or student attendance?
And wouldn’t parents, teachers, and students feel more comfortable if Newark (like Philadelphia Public Schools’ “Advancing Education Safety Dashboard,” which lists the number of cases school-by school) and all other districts, including charter networks, were required to be open and clear about COVID spread?
Knowledge is power. León, by all reports, is a power-hoarder. But parents will find out anyway. Not a good look for the educational leader of New Jersey’s largest district.
(Top photo courtesy of NJ Spotlight.)