Across NJ, educators prepare for virtual teaching if COVID-19 closes schools

At the urging of state officials, educators across New Jersey are making preparations to continue instruction amid the COVID-19 outbreak, which on Monday showed signs of broadening, with an uptick in the number of presumed cases in the state.

At the college level, Rowan University is adding a week to its spring break, which starts on Friday, so that staffers can make plans for switching to online learning. At Rutgers University, a team of 200 is working on contingency plans.

“We have a tabletop exercise on Wednesday to help validate these plans that we have put in place and will continue to put in place,” said Tony Calcado, Rutger’s chief operating officer.

And on Monday, the state’s lone Ivy, Princeton University, announced that it’s preparing “… a mandatory, temporary move for all lectures, seminars and precepts to virtual instruction starting Monday, March 23.” This week’s midterms exams will take place as scheduled, and next week is the school’s prescheduled week-long spring break.

Princeton’s president said the “… actions taken now will have the greatest chance of decreasing risk … [and] the potential consequences of not acting could far outweigh these short-term disruptions.” The steps will remain in place until at least April 5, when they will be reassessed, school officials said.

At the local level, the state Department of Education has urged each school district to develop preparedness plans in the event its schools were ordered closed by public health authorities. In a directive last week, it laid out rules for ensuring that times during which closed schools provided home instruction would count toward the required 180-day schedule.

At Mount Olive High School on Monday, hallways and classroom were empty as administrators and teachers rescheduled a “teacher professional development day” a week early to prepare for virtual or remote teaching if a confirmed coronavirus case would mandate closing the district’s six schools, with an enrollment of 4,600 students and 600 teachers.

“I think it’s a good plan to have in place for anything,” said teacher Jodi Bosch.

Bosch was showing how the Google Classroom web service would allow her to reach and teach her students.

“We are creating choice boards for our 11th grade English students where we have nine options. The students have to pick five,” she said.

Officials in the western Morris County district said they realize that not every student has Internet access at home.

“In the case of an announcement about the emergency, we have paper packets ready to go to distribute,” said schools Superintendent Robert Zywicki.

Officials are also making plans to partner with faith leaders and others for drop-off and pickup points for students who rely on free meals.

“To me this is just the next chapter in emergency preparedness where we now have the ability to continue school and have it count toward 180 days, if we had a health-related closure,” Zywicki said.

Kevin Moore, the high school principal in Mount Olive who’s also a first responder in neighboring Long Valley, knows the value of having a plan when venturing into uncharted territory.

“You don’t rise to the occasion when there’s an event, you fall to the level of your training,” he said. “We may never use this, but the fact that we have a plan in place that we can deliver instruction to our students at home, to me it’s a very, very important thing.”

Meanwhile, in a statement Monday, the state’s largest union for public school educators said it supports “proactive measures” such as closing schools and preparing to teach students remotely, but cited concerns that not all student have equal access to online tools.

“A scenario like that would require careful coordination between our members, the affected school districts and the New Jersey Department of Education. We would be in uncharted territory,” said New Jersey Education Association spokesperson Steve Baker, adding, “While that is far from ideal educationally and should not be seen as an equal substitute for in-person instruction, it is in students’ best interests to not to interrupt their education any more than necessary.”

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