‘COVID is traumatic’: Newark mayor responds to students’ struggles during the pandemic

High schoolers share challenges of attending school remotely during a virtual chat with Ras Baraka, a former principal of Central High School
Credit: City of Newark Press Office
Mayor Ras Baraka met with Newark youth for a book discussion last month. On Thursday, he held a virtual chat with students about remote learning.

Newark students shared some of the challenges of attending school remotely during a virtual chat with Mayor Ras Baraka Thursday, where they discussed the isolation of online learning, the frustration of heavy workloads, and the strain of being a teenager during a global pandemic.

Newark students have been out of classrooms for eight months, and with coronavirus cases surging statewide and in Newark, the district’s tentative plan to resume in-person learning in late January is far from certain. As remote learning drags on, a handful of students at the “Youth Town Hall” raised some of their top priorities: more mental health support, more engaging coursework, and programs to keep students safe when violence erupts in the community.

Mayor Ras Baraka, a former principal of Central High School, intently listened as he cradled his toddler during the event on Instagram Live. Baraka was sympathetic to their concerns, saying schools must help students cope with any trauma caused by COVID-19 and teachers need training on how to provide stimulating lessons over the internet.

“If you thought it was boring in class, it is going to be 10 times more boring at home because you are not engaged,” Baraka said. Teachers need to use technology “and make it exciting and innovative.”

Students recounted what they’re going through as Baraka responded without judgment.

“I feel like it’s a waste of time being in school on a computer because we’re not learning anything,” said Malayjah Williams, a student at Weequahic High School, who asked the mayor how he “plans on helping students who are struggling with their work.”

“A lot of students who were previously doing well are not now,” Baraka acknowledged, adding that teachers need support in using technology to connect with students and keep them invested in school while they’re learning from home. “Kids fail because they’re not engaged, and we have not figured out a way to engage them.”

Keeping Newark schools closed

As some New Jersey schools that had opened for in-person instruction this fall are now shuttering, the mayor said that keeping Newark schools closed remained the safest move. Eventually, the virus will be handled. Technology, however, is here to stay, and adults must “get better at dealing” with it, he said.

He also said Newark had lagged behind some other districts in adopting new technology.

“It is new to us, and it shouldn’t be,” he said. “We have to get better at it.”

Taylor Johnson, a student at Arts High School, laid out several concerns. He said there has been “a very bad lack of communication” between some students and teachers during remote learning, which he feared could cause students’ grades to suffer. He also said he heard that the high school football season had been suspended, and as a result some students’ hopes of winning college scholarships could be dashed.

The mayor assured Johnson that the season was not canceled. However, he said the state had been “lackadaisical” about enforcing coronavirus safety rules for youth sports, and that athletes from other parts of the state had infected Newark students during competitions. As a result, the city is requiring Newark student-athletes and coaches to be tested for the virus over a period of two weeks, Baraka said.

“We have to take all precautions that’s necessary or we’re going to feel responsible,” he said. “So we’re not canceling the season, we’re just making sure everybody gets tested.”

Spike in violence

Johnson also asked the mayor about a spike in violence during the pandemic, an alarming trend that has beset cities nationwide. On Sunday, a 17-year-old boy was fatally shot in Newark; another Newark 17-year-old was charged in the killing.

Johnson asked how the city could “help slow down the violence and slow down 18-, 17-, 16-year-olds being killed in the middle of the street.”

Baraka said the city is still on course to end the year with some of the lowest levels of violence in decades but that violent crime has increased since the spring. While the city has various initiatives aimed at reducing violence and mediating conflicts, it could use young people’s help in coming up with more solutions, the mayor said.

Two students asked about support for young people dealing with fear and distress related to the pandemic, including students whose family members have fallen ill. The mayor was clear.

“COVID is traumatic,” Baraka said. “Dealing with what we’re dealing with now is a traumatic situation.”

Staff needs the training to help students, and students should recognize that they sometimes need to step away from screens and reflect, the mayor added.

When asked what advice he could give, the mayor was quick with an answer.

‘We are all going through this’

“Patience is important,” he said. “And understand that we are all going through this. We have to use this as an opportunity.”

“How do we navigate this moment?” Baraka continued. “We shouldn’t pretend that before COVID everything was perfect. That is just not true. I would say patience, ingenuity, and using what we have.”

The virtual event was viewed live by more than 180 people. Joining Baraka were Newark school board members Dawn Haynes, Hasani Council, and A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, who also leads the Newark-based nonprofit SHE Wins!, which co-sponsored the event with the Brick City Peace Collective.