‘Everything changed’ as NJ schools, parents face remote learning
Patience is no longer just a virtue but a necessity for New Jersey families and educators faced with the abrupt switch to remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just days in for a majority of the state’s more than 600 public school districts, in addition to private schools, response has been one of notable understanding, tempered with stress, based on parents who spoke to New Jersey 101.5.
Katie Golden has four children. Her oldest son is a high school senior in the Monmouth County Vocational district. She also has a freshman daughter at St. John Vianney High School and a 7th grader and 2nd grader in the Freehold Township school district.
Golden said Wednesday that her teenage son’s classes have taken a “totally different” turn from the usual experience. He "never used a textbook" this year, Golden said. Now, the demonstrations he'd been participating in through the Academy of Law and Public Safety were being revamped through the Google Classroom system.
“Everything changed Monday — everything we do, the way we do it, the way we think of instruction,” said Woodbridge schools Superintendent Robert Zega, whose own district serves almost 14,000 students and 1,500 employees.
He said no one knows when it will go back “to the way it was" and that many outside of the field would not fully understand the challenges that districts had been faced with in such a short window against the novel coronavirus shutdown.
“Teachers are spending probably even more time than they do during the regular school year preparing for lessons,” according to Kevin Donahue, principal of St. Benedict Elementary School in Holmdel.
Donahue said his own staff is adapting and willing to try new ways of engaging with students, through daily chats and instruction, using Google Classroom, Hangouts, Flipgrid and Zoom.
In addition to his own role as a principal, his wife is a fourth grade teacher in Cherry Hill, and they have two sons at home. He believes, given the unfamiliar parameters, both teachers and parents are stressed.
Google Classroom and the video-enabled Hangouts app appeared to be the widest used tool for New Jersey educators now sending daily assignments to students at home.
Other online platforms for communicating and instruction include PowerSchool Unified Classroom and Canvas.
"Online learning isn't the only form of home instruction taking place," according to Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. He noted some districts are providing students a choice between online or paper-based, some pre-loaded laptops with learning materials, and others created learning packets to take home, adding "it really isn't a one-size-fits-all effort."
In Essex County, a Belleville mom said she thought the first week of the new system was going very smoothly.
"The school accommodated my son and any kids with no internet access with a thorough two-week packet, full of research projects, math, reading as well as art," Jaclyn Tucker said about her elementary aged son.
"We as parents rallied up and offered child care services to one another for the parents who aren't fortunate enough to work from home."
She said the school principal had sent a first morning message with a free login to a new website to keep the kids engaged while on break and to "say how much he misses them and to keep working hard."
Golden said over the first few days of remote learning, she has seen her middle school aged-daughter struggling to grasp certain lessons by reading first instead of receiving live instruction, and she does have concerns about the impact that weeks of this might have on students heading into the next grade.
Zega said the remote learning model is probably going to be a little different each passing week as the system evolves and families and educators will have to evolve along with it, as “we try to provide some semblance of normalcy for our kids.”
“The public will probably never know just how difficult and how immense this project was — in the span of less than a week to go from a traditional classroom to an online learning platform, it’s just astronomical,” Zega said, noting he has a teleconference with his district leaders Friday to compare notes about the first week and plan for next Monday.
Zega said he did tell his own district's teachers that this is an opportunity for them to be creative and try out methods that wouldn’t "work" in a traditional classroom setting, modifying lesson plans to the online environment.
Woodbridge had taken a survey through its equity teams study and started looking at internet access at home “way before this all started,” Zega said. The district bought hundreds of WiFi hotspots for families in need and those were distributed before the current shutdown.
Students in grades 8 through 12 already have district-issued devices, so it was the remaining elementary and middle school grades that the district worked to supply with loaner devices from among the existing supply from across Woodbridge schools.
Donahue said he empathizes with kids for whom school is an outlet and safe sanctuary, now missing the in-person connection. He said his wife created a "recess" classroom amid her Google offerings for her class to give kids a place for that social interaction that they’re missing out on right now.
Golden said she worries about where her son’s reading will be next year, but then she realizes everyone will be in the same boat.
She said she knows a lot of parents are confused and dealing with the new situation. She said she went from working in finance to doing that and playing the role of teacher to her kids.
“I want them to be able to come to me when they have a problem,” Golden said, while admitting in helping her daughter with school work, she’s been “un-teaching everything she’s learned for the past two or three years” with Common Core math.
Katie Wiggins, a mother of two elementary students as well as a teacher in Westfield, said she is especially proud of the way her school community has jumped into distance learning.
She pointed to such first-week elements as a daily morning meeting video for staff, a morning announcements video that gets sent to students, teachers making videos of themselves reading books aloud and posting for students, and teacher-led web meetings with an entire classroom.
Parents also commented on social media from Old Bridge, Sayreville, South Plainfield, Barnegat, Toms River, Winslow Township, Berlin Township, Lumberton, Pemberton, Trenton, East Windsor and Union Township, among others, to chime in with accolades for the teachers and staff just a first few days into the new system.
Several parents voiced concern that the work load seemed to be heavy for at-home instruction with guardians that have other responsibilities. A few others were concerned that the instruction and work load weren't enough when compared to what is typically being taught in a classroom.
Among classes facing some of the biggest challenges in the transition, special-needs students and teachers who spend a good deal of time focused on social and community interaction, now are working on ways to mimic such progress while still maintaining social distance.
Zega said he’s concerned that teenagers will get antsy as time wears on and they will want to get out to see friends, thinking they’re "invincible." But, he said, students need to do their part to not spread the virus.
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