Learning About Teaching Anew in a Suddenly Changed World

With schools closed by the coronavirus restrictions, the NJEA puts extensive guidance online, fielding questions as they arise
Credit: NTJV News
Just as home schooling is new territory for students, so it also for teachers.

Much has been made of the 1.4 million schoolchildren in New Jersey who are suddenly home schooling, but 200,000 public school teachers and other staff are not exactly in familiar territory, either.

Lessons plans have suddenly gone long-distance, complicating everything from how they will teach reading and writing to how they will even take attendance. Work conditions that were developed over decades of being in a classroom and a building no longer apply.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s dominant teachers union, Tuesday held a 90-minute call to its 1,000 local leaders to talk about the new world order — and job descriptions — of their professions. The union also put out extensive guidance online, trying to handle questions as they came in.

“Uncharted territory,” wrote Steve Baker, the union’s communications director, in a midday text.

NJEA president Marie Blistan and executive director Steve Swetsky in an evening interview said their members are rising to the challenge, but no doubt there would be many challenges ahead.

“This is an emergency that none of us were prepared for,” Blistan said. “But I’ve been awestruck to what our leaders have being doing to keep our members calm and focused … Our message has been a big ‘thank you.’”

When asked whether existing contracts and work conditions included anything close to provisions addressing pandemics, Swetsky said: “I think we are learning a lot. A lot of it is still too early to tell, but there is no doubt this will be a real learning experience for all of us.”

All districts have plans in place

Indeed, much is uncertain for everyone involved in education in New Jersey, as Wednesday marks the first official day of Gov. Phil Murphy’s statewide closure of all public and private schools due to the coronavirus.

Closures have been widespread since the start of the week, but Murphy confirmed Tuesday that the last of them were in place by the end of the day. The last three districts — all rural — were seeing their emergency plans reviewed and approved, he said.

“End of school day today, they are closed — public, private, parochial, et cetera,” Murphy said at his daily briefing in Trenton.

And the governor said he expected the closures would certainly last weeks and more likely go one for months. “Our edict on the schools was at least two weeks, and it is far more likely that it will be longer than that,” Murphy said.

“We will need to look at how this unfolds,” he said of the schools’ order. “I believe we are in a suspension mode longer than not, and that will inform our decisions.”

And for teachers and staff in more than 600 school districts, it is a work in progress as to how the next couple of months will work. All the districts are supposed to have remote learning plans — whether online, by phone, or on paper — but that’s just the start of a day’s work in the classroom.

Baker, the NJEA communication’s chief, said there have been fewer inquiries from members than expected, but the union has tried to be prepared. It issued a series of guidance papers over the last week.

One dealt with health-safety concerns within individual schools, another laid out a slew of online learning tools, from Edmodo to Kiker Learning. A third tried to answer questions about whether there will be state testing as planned in late March and April. (Murphy said Tuesday: “To be determined.”)

The union’s top officers had only high praise for how their members are adjusting so far, and especially how their first thoughts are for their students.

“This is so new for our teachers, but also for their kids,” Blistan said. “We’ve heard over and over from members about not just how they will learn through this, but what about the kids. They say they are worried about their kids being out of school and how will they fare.”

Baker said the union will keep issuing direction as the situation evolves.

“It is moving so quickly, we are mostly posting stuff on the web,” Baker texted. “By the time emails go out and get read, everything is new.”