Matching the times, NJ Spotlight and NJTV News on Thursday hosted their first virtual roundtable, a teleconference titled “School’s Out: Managing Remote Learning During COVID-19.”
Working from his kitchen, NJ Spotlight founding editor John Mooney spoke with three accomplished New Jersey educators for an hour-long discussion about the state of schooling and instruction two weeks into the coronavirus pandemic.
The conversation touched on the details — and challenges — of remote instruction on all levels, the importance of communicating with parents, how to grade students from afar, and even whether there will be a spring break this year.
And as closing advice, each had a tip for their fellow educators — and parents — that may prove useful.
The following are edited excerpts, and the full discussion can be watched here.
Typical school day
Q: So, tell us about your typical school day these days?
Dr. Danielle Kovach, special education teacher, second and third grades at the Hopatcong School District, New Jersey Teacher of the Year in 2011: The day starts just like every other. I wake up, I make my coffee. I may not always get out of my pajamas first thing in the morning, but I do start with communicating to my parents, sending them an email. I set up a Google Meet for my students, so my students and I meet every morning. We basically have some conversations. First, how are things going? How are things going with their work? We do our calendar. We greet each other, which is harder with video conferencing. But we’re working through those things.
Q: Do all of your students have video capabilities and online capabilities?
Kovach: No, and that’s been a huge challenge, as well. I have students who not only don’t have video capability, they don’t have internet and parents don’t have an email address. So in those cases, I just reach out to the parents directly through phone calls and just checking up as much as I can to make sure that they’re OK and they’re following through with their work.
Dr. Denise King, principal of B. Bernice Young Elementary School in Burlington Township: I’m almost the same world — balancing home, work and school; staying up late hours, making sure that we communicate regularly. I’m on video or phone constantly. This is what I do all day now. I’m used to walking the building on a regular basis, checking in with teachers face to face, hugging students regularly, just making sure that everybody is good. I’m doing that again, but I’m doing it virtually.
So my day begins with plugging in, doing our digital chats with the central administrators, talking with case managers and teachers. And we do family chats. I had a little family chat yesterday and today. And that gives me a sense of the pulse of what’s happening in their world.
Q: What is the pulse, what are you hearing?
King: Well, I would say today is definitely better than it was last week. Parents are juggling, as Danielle said. I have my granddaughter and my mom that live with us also. So I’m balancing that, making sure that I’m helping her with her schoolwork.
Dr. Scott Rocco, superintendent of schools for the Hamilton Township School District and president of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators:
Everybody has risen to the occasion here, no matter what their title or responsibility. And that’s how we’ve made it work. It is better this week than it was last week. We were in true triage mode over the last week-and-a-half or so. And we’re beginning to find a groove of how things are working.
I have three high schools in my district, and so that poses an interesting angle when you’re working K-12. One of the things that we know is that our high school students tend to have more of an opportunity to either have a device and Wi-Fi at home or to have their own smartphone that has data where they can do a lot of the work through their phone or through a device.
That being said, when we started this a week-and-a-half ago, 83% of our students in the district were connected to a device and Wi-Fi. About the end of last week, we were 87%. By the end of yesterday, we had handed out 1,300-plus additional devices, and we are at about 98% of our students now connected on device and Wi-Fi.
Q: Can you speak to what a day’s schedule is like for high schools?
Rocco: I know across the state my colleagues have done all kinds of different things, from having a specific schedule to setting specific times. In Hamilton Township, we have told our students that our teachers will be available between 10 and 2 every day to assist. Teachers are putting up lessons, running video chats, videotaping their own lessons, and making connections to resources that are out there.
What I have found is that the teachers have made themselves available way beyond 10 to 2. Plus, the teachers are putting assignments up, so that the students can do it at their own pace. But they are answering emails all day long, all night long and responding to our students and our parents. And that’s the other nice thing, is that our teachers are responding directly to our parents.
King: That is so true on all levels. Every single person is working above and beyond. So we decided in our district to have Wednesday a “take a breath day,” just to take a moment, to take a breath and just not assign any new assignments. So much is happening that we can’t catch our breath. We want the families to not be so overwhelmed. We want the teachers not to be overwhelmed.
Students with special needs
Q: We have gotten a lot of questions from our audience about the challenges of serving students with special needs and disabilities.
King: That’s an excellent conversation to have. Personally, I am a parent of a young adult with unique abilities. You’re right. We have students who need support. That is what the behavior specialists help with and things that we have done to help a child make progress. To understand the emotional components of what they need is a regular battle. It’s not easy.
Q: Do you worry about loss of learning?
Rocco: Absolutely, every day. For all students.
King: We have parents who are learning themselves with their children. Many of the skills, some of them are not familiar with them. So it’s a learning curve for everybody, especially when they’re not used to using technology to do it. So the learning component of it is different. I know for our lower grade levels, we just decided to go to a pass-fail component for our students.
It’s not for lack of effort by the teachers. They are working hard. They are working hard to do the best that they can in the environment that we have. But think about this: We haven’t really tested a lot of it out over time. So we are just doing it now for the better part of about eight days, nine days. I would say over those nine days, there’s been a lot more success than there has been failure.
Remote report cards
Q: Will grading have to change?
Rocco: It’s a great question. Just yesterday we decided as a central administrative team to move the elementary level to a pass-fail grading system. We’re looking into a pass-fail because what you said is correct. The validity of what’s occurring regarding instruction, we really can’t assess to that because the students are in the home.
Kovach: That is still an unknown for us because all of our students are using paper work. I’ve been encouraging my parents to take a picture if they can send me their work; that way, at least maybe not for grading purposes, but I can check on their progress to see how they’re doing.
Q: How will you decide whether a child will advance? And Dr. Rocco, you have high school kids where class rankings really matter. What are the conversations happening right now around that?
Rocco: We’re having those conversations every day. We’re having it with the principals and supervisors, my directors. We’re going to try and come up with a plan that’s fair and balanced, based on what we have available.
Our teachers are grading work that the students are turning in. They’re doing project-based learning also on top of that. But we have to look at this because it has a long-term effect. It’s not just the seniors who you need a final GPA for when you determine who is Number One and who’s Number Two in the class. But it impacts all four grades, moving forward year after year after year.
Q: Are SATs and ACTs going to happen for the spring?
Rocco: Right now, the SATs and ACTs are postponed. I suspect they’ll probably run some time either end of June or the beginning of July. AP is going to happen and actually be done individually. Kids can take those. College Board has been great with the information they’ve put out. But that’s also going to be different because they’re going to take it from home. And my understanding is it’s predominantly going to be essay-based.
Q: Are there one or two best practices that you’ve encountered in just the last couple of weeks that you’d be willing to share?
Kovach: Honestly, the best thing that I’ve found so far that has been the most effective every single day is open lines of communication with parents, especially when you work with children with special needs.
When we speak, when we talk and we communicate or they know that we are there to help them, that has what I have found to be the best help. And I think we as educators need to realize that our parents need a lot of support now. It is just not our students that need support.
Q: Is there going to be a spring break this year?
Rocco: Yeah, that’s been one of the biggest questions that we’ve had. I think we need a break from the remote learning, it’s been so new for everybody. We will be three weeks into it. So I think we do need a break. I think that gives parents, that gives children, that gives teachers a needed break to kind of refocus, re-energize and then come back after spring break and be ready to go again.
Q: How long is this sustainable? Can we do this for the rest of the school year, which may be a reality?
Rocco: I have no doubt our teachers and administrators and everybody in the district will rise to the occasion and get it done. And I think that’s across the state and across the country. I think that can be done. We’ll just adapt. We adapt day in and day out and make it work.
King: I agree with Scott. It’s definitely a possibility. We have to do it. I believe throughout our collaborators, our collaboration with our team, with every student, parents and our families and our district stakeholders, we are prepared to do what we need to do to make it effective.
Kovach: Let’s look at it from this way. New Jersey right now is the best in the nation in education. I know that our teachers are thoroughly ready to do this, and we are fully committed to do everything we can to give our students the best education possible, no matter what circumstances we’re under.
One piece of advice
Q: As we close, one tip to educators who are watching this?
Kovach: I would have to say that we have to also take care of ourselves. This is very emotional for us. It’s getting very stressful for us. As teachers, we want to give. We want to give everything of ourselves, but we also need to think of ourselves to make sure we’re getting sleep, make sure that we’re getting some exercise, taking care of ourselves, so that we can take care of our children and our families and know that we’re doing our best.
King: Breathe and laugh. You do have to have a sense of humor. Make sure you stay connected with everybody. It’s a lot going on.
Rocco: I agree with both of them 100%. But I also want to make it very clear to everybody, just as was just said, we will get through this. We will get through this together. I think that’s an important piece we need to understand.