Op-Ed: NJ’s Educators, Other School Employees Meet the COVID-19 Challenge

Learning continues despite challenges in implementing a new education system ‘that was conceived and built almost overnight’
Marie Blistan

Three weeks ago, New Jersey’s schools embarked on an experiment none of us ever imagined when we became educators. Over the course of just a few days, and in some cases just a few hours, districts across the state closed their doors to students and began a transition to remote learning. Some key employees remain in certain schools to prepare and deliver meals, ensure sanitary conditions, and carry out essential business that cannot be done remotely. They deserve our gratitude for their work under very difficult conditions.

But the vast majority of educators, along with all students, have been given a different, very important job: stay home and help New Jersey flatten the COVID-19 curve. That is Job 1 for every New Jersey resident now, and we are proud to do our part. Educators have another job as well. We also have to ensure that learning continues even as school buildings remain closed indefinitely.

And just a few weeks in, it’s clear that New Jersey’s educators have stepped up to the challenge. With no road map to guide them and almost no time to plan, they have created a system to keep nearly 1.4 million public school students connected, engaged and learning.

Despite our distance from our students and the challenges involved in implementing an education system that was conceived and built almost overnight, the human element is shining through in a million ways, large and small. The 2017 New Jersey teacher of the year, Amy Andersen, is conducting video chats for her ASL students. Because they are on video, they can practice their sign language, but that is more of an added benefit than the main point. The real focus of their time together is to check in on each other, encourage each other and even find some time to laugh, reproducing as best they can the social elements that we take for granted in a regular school day.

Monmouth Beach fifth-grade teaching partners Nancy Pietz and Jason Vastano were sad that the sudden closure meant so many of the fun, enriching activities they had planned for the coming weeks would have to be canceled. But they also were determined to give their students an opportunity to express themselves creatively. So they put together activity packs with chalk for writing positive messages on the sidewalk, bubbles to encourage kids to get outside and play, a bookmark to encourage reading, and a card and envelope to promote both writing and strengthening connections with loved ones. Because Monmouth Beach is a small community, they were able to deliver — safely, and observing social-distancing guidelines — a packet to each student’s home. And while they could not give the hugs and high-fives that students wanted, the smiles and waves through the window were priceless for students and teachers alike, not to mention for the parents who got to witness that dedication and love.

Food service workers and custodians

In Lower Township, food service workers are coming to school each day to prepare breakfasts and lunches for any student who needs them, while custodians are helping to distribute the meals and ensure safe and sanitary conditions for all of that to happen. Custodian Gary O’Shea says, “Before this, I don’t think many people realized how many students relied on school districts for their meals. It’s not a city problem or a country problem — it’s everywhere. It was one of the biggest concerns we all had when we heard that schools would close.” And he, along with countless colleagues the length and breadth of New Jersey, has stepped up to meet the need and do what it takes to look after students’ physical security along with their educational and emotional well-being.

Those stories, and countless more, can be found at the NJEA Together webpage, a place for parents and educators to learn about how to cope with the current educational reality. It’s also as a place to encourage one another and be encouraged by the images and stories of an educational community that has come together for the benefit of all New Jersey students.

This is no one’s idea of an ideal educational scenario. It is hard to overstate the value of in-person, face-to-face interaction with a teacher. Students are also missing out on the benefits of learning with and from their peers in a classroom setting. No screen can replace the human element of education. And the equity issues involved in remote learning, including who has access to those screens in the first place and who has the capacity and support at home to take full advantage of online and remote education, are troubling and require continued attention.

But we are doing it nonetheless. It turns out that students don’t need the pressure of standardized tests to stay focused on learning. It turns out that teachers don’t need the specter of unannounced evaluation visits to do their best work for students every day. It turns out that learning for its own sake — when things like grades, deadlines and pressure to perform quickly take a backseat to simply doing the work — is a powerful motivator for students and educators alike. It turns out that love is a powerful motivator, and New Jersey’s school employees love the students we serve each day.

There are so many other heroes stepping up in this crisis: the nurses, doctors and other health care workers providing front-line treatment, the retail workers stocking the shelves and keeping stores open so we have access to basic necessities, the truck drivers away from their families delivering needed supplies, and the police officers and firefighters who continue to keep our communities safe. We salute all of them for their bravery and dedication. And as the president of NJEA and a lifelong educator myself, I salute all the educators doing their part to bring a small dose of normalcy to our children in a confusing and disorienting time.

We do not know how long this will last, but we do know this: every day longer, we grow another day stronger, together.