Pandemic forces educational changes in Irvington

April Vauss

IRVINGTON, NJ — The pandemic, which caused many Irvington schools to switch to remote learning, has brought quite a few changes — both positive and negative. Irvington Superintendent of Schools April Vauss — wife of Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss — was forced to find quick solutions while still finding her feet; she became superintendent in April, after Neely Hackett’s departure from the position.

“It’s always difficult when you don’t have in-person instruction vs. remote instruction, which is what we’re currently doing, due to the high numbers of COVID and different challenges that we face as a district,” Vauss said on Dec. 14, adding that a difficulty was “not having one-to-one devices to begin the year. Although right now, we are at one-to-one, so that has greatly improved. Before this pandemic happened, we sparingly gave out Chromebooks to our scholars to use at home. So, it has been a complete culture shock for many of the members of our community — from parents to students to teachers, staff and, of course, administration.”

Uprooting the district from paper and pencil to technology-based learning continues to be Vauss’ end game for all schools. Additionally, many Irvington High School students have had to deal with the challenge of caring for younger siblings.

“The most challenging was finding our scholars and getting them to consistently log on to remote learning,” Vauss said. “It’s not necessarily that they weren’t used to that type of instruction, because, at the secondary level, they were familiar with that. The problem is with the way our community is set up. A lot of our parents are essential workers, and so they’re not able to stay at home with their children to help with the remote learning. So that responsibility has fallen on a lot of our older, high school scholars. They’re helping them during the day with their work, when they should be logging on and doing their own work.”

There have been some upsides to Irvington education during the pandemic, as well.

“We’ve had some of our scholars really thrive under the remote learning,” Vauss said. “I remember what high school was like for me, and there are so many social things that happen that make students not want to come to school. A lot of the bullying, not having money, being concerned with popularity and who likes who, that has almost been eliminated because of remote learning. Certain students, who, normally would not thrive because they don’t want to appear too smart, or appear to be dumb, they’ve been growing and thriving in this environment. It’s been incredible.

“Another positive thing is, with the upcoming snowstorm, we don’t have to lose a day of instruction,” she continued. “We can continue instruction and not miss a day, if the weather doesn’t mess with people’s Wi-Fi. We can just continue on.”

When it comes to the proper equipment, the town was able to provide for all, with help from external sources.

“As far as being able to get online, there were the challenges of actually having equipment and then actually having Wi-Fi. We had to provide people with Wi-Fi connection hot spots. That was a challenge, but we met that challenge,” Vauss said. “We’ve received a lot of funds through the Digital Divide grant from the state. We’ve received Chromebooks from an organization called WeLoveU Foundation; we’ve also received money donations from an auxiliary group that are community advocates, who gave us money to fund a hot spot for our scholars who may have received a Chromebook from us but don’t have internet connectivity in their home. We had to provide that for them.

“We’ve had a lot of people who’ve been very helpful and just incredibly philanthropic in providing us with the tools that we didn’t normally have for our scholars,” she continued. “As far as the pandemic, socially, almost 95 percent of our staff was trained for social and emotional learning. Almost prophetically, we were ready for the social issues that were coming from something like this. As a district, they allowed me to hire a floating school psychologist whose focus was dealing with the trauma that comes as a result of a pandemic. We’ve been trying different things because of the challenges, but I think we had the opportunity to meet them head on.”

Athletics is one achievement in which IHS continues to take pride; Vauss touted that the school’s football team is conference champion again this year and that many of the school’s athletes have received Division I scholarships.

Despite all the help the district has received, Vauss credits the students for their successes.

“The scholars sold it,” Vauss said. “They’re resilient and incredible. Our particular students are just so open to change, which is not a usual thing.”