Camden’s oldest charter school has dropped plans to reopen its classrooms on Monday and instead will start the school year virtually after teachers raised health and safety concerns.
The announcement by the LEAP Academy University Charter School came hours after teachers began a campaign urging the board to reconsider plans to offer parents a choice of in-person or online learning for about 1,500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Half-day classes were going to be held five days a week.
Instead, all students will learn from home beginning Monday and until Oct. 4, the school said in a statement. After a reassessment, in-person classes could begin Oct. 5 for parents who choose that option.
Stephanie Aspenburg, president of the LEAP Academy Teachers Association, said she was relieved by the decision. The union, representing about 45 teachers and support staff, flooded board members with emails Wednesday expressing concerns about HVAC systems not working in some buildings, and classrooms that still looked as they did when schools were abruptly shut down by the coronavirus in March.
“Never have I felt so much anxiety about starting my first day of a new school year,” wrote Aspenburg, a sixth grade English teacher. “I have spent countless nights asleep wondering how I can ease the minds of the members I represent.”
LEAP, which opened in September 1997, was among the first 17 charter schools in the state after then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed legislation authorizing them. Today, it is one of the largest charter schools in New Jersey, with six campuses on Cooper Street in downtown Camden.
About 40% of LEAP’s parents had planned to send their children to school for in-person learning, according to the school. The remainder had opted for virtual learning.
About one-third of New Jersey’s 87 charters plan to begin the 2020-21 school year with remote-only instruction, said Harry Lee, president of the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association. About 55,000 students attend charters.
Across the state, at least 139 of New Jersey’s traditional public school districts have said they will not be able to meet health and safety guidelines for in-person classes and want to start the year with virtual learning, said Michael Yaple, a state Department of Education spokesperson.
Yaple said that number could increase as nearly 600 operating school districts, charter, and Renaissance schools — and 140 private schools that enroll students with disabilities — finalize their plans. Most schools open Sept. 3.
Some districts, including Camden, scrapped plans to reopen with hybrid models of in-person and virtual learning after Gov. Phil Murphy announced last week that districts could switch to remote instruction only, as long as they can show why they cannot safely reopen for students.
Districts must resubmit their reopening plans to the state for approval to offer only virtual classes. They also must provide a timeline for restarting in-person instruction.
“I think the numbers are going to continue to go up,” said Steve Baker, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Education Association, which has urged the state to require remote instruction.
The state last week also released new guidelines for how schools that reopen their buildings must operate and how to handle any COVID-19 cases .
Under the health rules, an entire school could be shut down if two or more people in different classrooms test positive for the virus. Anyone who came into close contact with an infected person would be required to quarantine for 14 days.