Essex County schools make the best of remote learning

Teachers adapt to online education as schools stay closed

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By Amanda Valentovic and EmilyAnn Jackman / Staff Writers

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — It has been more than two weeks since the global COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the country, and Essex County school districts have closed the doors to school buildings and moved to online classes. With no timeline for returning, teachers and students are adjusting to a new normal.

“I think we’re in about as good a shape as we can hope to be,” West Orange Superintendent of Schools Scott Cascone said in a phone interview on March 25. “The nature of the public crisis wasn’t going to allow us to open. So how do you, on a dime, take everything you do brick-and-mortar and turn it around to online?”

Cascone and the other superintendents in the county had to figure out how to give students who didn’t have internet access or computers at home the ability to take online classes. In West Orange, staff members are organizing technology drops at elementary schools — families who need computers can pick them up at specific times at the entrance to the school. Social distancing guidelines are being followed.

On the educational side, Cascone said some classes are easier to transition to distance learning than others. The district already had a one-to-one Chromebook initiative for students in seventh through 12th grades, but elementary school students and sixth-graders at Edison Middle School used the portable Chromebooks in the classroom only. Younger grades don’t use technology as often.

“There are a couple of new things,” Cascone said. “Parents can be a little more present, but there’s the social and emotional component that students aren’t getting. But I think our teachers have done an admirable job. For some there’s been a learning curve, but they’ve all done a great job.”

Tynia Thomassie and Diana DaCosta, West Orange’s technology-integration specialists, were preparing for the possible move to online learning throughout February.

“We saw this coming from colleagues in Asia,” DaCosta said in a phone interview on March 28. “We were learning from teachers and administrators that were eight weeks ahead of us. Then it got clearer and clearer that it wasn’t going to be a temporary situation.”

Despite the abrupt change, Thomassie said she and DaCosta had wanted to incorporate more online learning technology into the West Orange School District anyway.

“We’ve always been proponents of doing more with video in our normal school day,” Thomassie said in a phone interview on March 28. “When we started seeing what was happening internationally, we were in conversation about it. And then it was like the bottom dropped out of a roller coaster and things started moving at warp speed.”

West Orange moved its spring break up to allow Thomassie, DaCosta and the rest of the administration time to develop a plan. Students didn’t have any classes for a week and began the new online system March 23. A website was built to allow students to access their classes, and educational tools such as Flipgrid and Google Classroom are being used, along with video-call platforms such as Google Meet and Zoom.

“We know that it’s possible to do good, quality education online,” DaCosta said. “It won’t replace the regular thing. But we can bring human touch to technology.”

Now that the first week of online instruction is over, West Orange teachers have a better idea of how to use the system. According to DaCosta, some teachers, especially in the music department, were already using some of the technology platforms. Others are new to it. Regardless, she said that when schools are allowed to open their doors again, the effects of the new type of learning won’t disappear.

“This is the new normal,” DaCosta said. “This isn’t going away. This plane has taken off, and we’re just adjusting and repairing in the air, but whenever we go back this will change teachers’ practices.”

Though the current online situation isn’t ideal, Thomassie said there have been some silver linings. Students and teachers like being able to record videos and replay them later.

“You can still connect that way,” Thomassie said. “It doesn’t replace teachers, but it can amplify them. I don’t think that will go away.”

DaCosta also talked about how social media is being used in the district now. West Orange High School physics teacher Isabel Kennedy hosted a livestream on Twitter for her students, to help with anything they needed, and almost all of them watched. Cascone has also used social media to communicate with the community and show students how administrators are holding their online classes. It’s a cue that Orange School District Superintendent Gerald Fitzhugh has taken for his schools.

“We’re having spirit week, where they can show everyone their crazy socks or their favorite shirt or wear their team jersey,” Fitzhugh said in a phone interview on March 30. “We want them to still engage with their peers.”

Orange is doing the same technology drops that West Orange is; families who need computers can pick them up at Lincoln Avenue Elementary School. Like Thomassie and DaCosta, Fitzhugh said he and the other administrators in Orange were thinking about a possible shift to distance learning weeks before it happened.

“The principals are having meetings each week to make sure their staff is good,” he said. “I have meetings with the principals so we can see each other and so we know what needs to be tweaked. Normally I’m in the schools all the time, so the hardest part of this is to not be able to go to Lincoln or Oakwood and see my kids.”

Teachers and guidance counselors in Orange have set office hours during which they are available to provide help to anyone who needs it.

“If kids need to check in, they can do that, just like they can do in the buildings,” Fitzhugh said. “I’m available, the principals are available. We’re all in this together.”

In light of the situation, some schools in East Orange have managed to tackle both the positives and negatives of this situation. One such negative is that not everyone has the luxury of internet access.

In those cases, schools are able to offer an alternative. Katie McDermott, who teaches first grade at the Dionne Warwick Institute in East Orange, provides a different option for those students.

“I taught fifth grade before my current position,” McDermott said in a phone interview on March 27. “I taught in Charter School in Newark before coming here. The transition to remote learning wasn’t terrible, because I came from a school which was used to using technology. So, it’s not new to me. This school has an in-school, one-to-one Chromebook for every child. As for remote learning, for those who have internet access, children are using their siblings’ computers for the time being. For those who don’t have internet access, we are utilizing packets.

“For the kids who are using the packets, we have their parents take pictures of their child’s work and send them through ClassDojo,” McDermott continued, adding that remote learning will last through at least April 17. “For kids who have online access, I make every subject formatted. Every assignment has everything they need on it. I save the links where work can be easily accessed. This is my routine. Everything is by routine and has a set format.”

Irvington schools are following suit and utilizing instructional packets, too.

“The Irvington Public Schools is meeting the needs of our students during the COVID-19 school closure through online assignments and instructional packets, both of which are aligned to the New Jersey Student Learning Standards,” Irvington Superintendent of Schools Neely Hackett said in a phone interview on March 27.

The South Orange–Maplewood School District, like many others, planned for two weeks of closed schools. When it became clear that two weeks would stretch into a much longer period of time, Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor and the rest of the administration did all it could to make sure all of its students have the technology they need.

“The teachers have been awesome,” Taylor said in a phone interview on March 27. “My No. 1 goal was to have consistency. We didn’t want different schools and grades doing different things. But the teacher’s union has been very involved in communication and they’ve handled it well.”

Like in Orange, South Orange–Maplewood teachers are offering office hours.

“All the teachers have 90 minutes of office time, so if parents and students want to connect or have a question answered or even just say hi, they can,” he said. “We’re trying to be creative.”

SOMSD is also starting a mental health newsletter that will provide resources to parents and teachers, and hands-on activities are still being taken into account, especially for younger students.

“We’ve provided bags of hands-on activities for younger grades and instructions for families,” Taylor said. “We realized that screen time is not the end all be all. We all have different home lives. Parents are now working from home. Many teachers have their own kids at home and are trying to teach them and their students. So we’re trying to be cognizant of that.”

Columbia High School, while not home to younger students, is also facing challenges with its hands-on classes. Art teacher Curtis Grayson had to adjust the projects he assigns based on the materials he knows most students will have at home.

“It started hitting home a few days in and it’s been tough on everyone,” Grayson said in a phone interview on March 26. “We want to get back to being more hands-on. We have to work with the most basic things, like pencil and ink pens. I’ve had two video calls with my classes so far and we’re working that way.”

Grayson teaches all levels of art at CHS and is adapting in the best way he can. Students in the AP studio art classes were already expected to work outside of the classroom, so they have the supplies they need to complete their projects. The senior showcase that was scheduled for April 1 was postponed, and they’re still waiting to find out if it will be rescheduled.

“It’s hard for kids because they’re so used to routine,” Grayson said. “They have structure and know where they’re going to be from 7:30 to 3. Now they don’t have that. The good thing is that we can dig for things to do. Artists can still create. If they wanted to teach themselves something new, now they have time. Everything is in limbo, but there are still plans that can turn into actions.”

In Glen Ridge, the transition to online classes went better than Superintendent of Schools Dirk Phillips expected it to go. Like the other districts, teachers and administrators are using Zoom, Google Meet and Google Classroom, and Phillips said some educational tools have eliminated fees for school districts.

“Teachers have been amazing,” he said in a phone interview on March 28. “They’ve gone beyond what they do in a normal week.”

Students in sixth through 12th grades have individual Chromebooks, and Glen Ridge also did technology drops for younger students. Like South Orange–Maplewood, Glen Ridge is also focusing on mental health.

“We’ve been having a lot of conversations that are turning away from academics and toward social and emotional health,” Phillips said. “Our guidance counselors have been providing activities and been in contact with students. If they’re noticing they’re having a hard time, we’ll be able to help. We’re also going to be giving students more brain-break, fun things to do. It’s important they have that kind of interaction.”

It’s especially important for a school district’s youngest students. Michele Topolski, a kindergarten teacher at Bloomfield’s Franklin Elementary School, said they need hands-on learning before they start using screens more.

“We don’t use them that much at all,” she said in a phone interview on March 27. “They need paper and pencil and play.”

Bloomfield is using the same video technology that the surrounding districts are using, and the kindergartners, who are just beginning to learn how to read, are able to show Topolski what they’re working on through that. They’re also able to see their classmates and talk to one another, while doing the worksheets and other kindergarten-level activities.

“That’s huge for kindergarten, to be around their friends,” Topolski said. “So I’m trying to keep everything as hands-on as I can. Every day I’m learning something new.”

So is Olivia Ruiz, the orchestra director and music-technology teacher at Bloomfield Middle School. Music technology, a class that teaches sound mixing and production, hasn’t seen much of a change since Bloomfield moved to distance learning two weeks ago.

“It’s pretty high functioning because we use that technology every day,” Ruiz said in a phone interview on March 26. “So that wasn’t that challenging for me. For orchestra, it’s a little more challenging, because they’re not used to playing on their own without me there.”

Now that they’re not in rehearsal every day, seventh- and eighth-grade string players have to record themselves playing for 40 minutes on any day they would normally be in Ruiz’s class. She’s also working on a schedule to video chat with each student, so they can practice with her in real time. But in orchestra, the class is leading up to the spring concert at the end of the year.

“Our primary focus is, if we go back, and that’s a big if, we can’t have 300 or 400 people in a room for a concert,” Ruiz said. “So we’re looking at livestreaming something when we know if that will be possible.”

Teachers have been working together both within the district and outside of it — Ruiz has a friend who is a choir director in Caldwell, and they’ve been working on lesson plans together.

“We’re all very open with teaching each other how to do this, which is nice,” she said. “We try to do a lot of planning together. Overall it’s been a positive collective experience.”

Bloomfield Assistant Superintendent Joe Fleres said teachers in the district are trying to get as much face time with their students as possible over the video platforms.

“It’s a very unique time in the world, let alone in education,” he said in a phone interview on March 26. “Teachers have been doing an amazing job. We’re still doing the same thing and have the same expectations; it’s just been online. It’s a tough time for parents, and in a matter of days the teachers have really built confidence about what we can do. I can’t say enough good things about them.”