LIVINGSTON, NJ — In recognition of the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on all aspects of daily life, teachers from Livingston and Morristown high schools developed a Collaborative Student Task Force earlier this month that charged students in various class subjects to come together in an effort to research the scientific and medical aspects of the novel coronavirus, analyze its impact on specific communities and determine potential plans for recovery and re-opening.
According to the educators involved, it is crucial to provide opportunities for students to “take advantage of applied-learning opportunities.” Acknowledging that the pandemic had already affected students in various ways—from adjusting to the remote-learning environment to seeing a parent lose his or her job or experiencing a death in the family—several teachers at Morristown High School (MHS) agreed that the Collaborative Student Task Force project would provide a forum for students to further research the effects of the coronavirus and professionally document their findings.
The experimental project, which has been ongoing throughout the month, charged about 20 groups of students from both MHS and Livingston High School (LHS) with creating an online platform to share information they compiled about the health crisis from several lenses.
Due to the involvement of multiple class subjects, the groups were able to analyze various aspects of the pandemic, including the science behind the virus and viable treatments for it; how health care has been affected; the impact on specific groups based on gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc.; the impact on small businesses; and steps schools might need to take in order to reopen safely in the fall.
According to LHS entrepreneurship teacher Maggie Wohltmann, who has been heading the project alongside its masterminds, MHS teachers Betiana Caprioli and Christina Doyle, the project has been a success thus far and is expected to continue into the 2020-2021 school year.
“We’re not trying to prove anything with this project; we just have the students gathering information on what happened and organizing and recording it,” said Wohltmann. “So much can happen over the summer, and we still don’t know what our return to school looks like, so this will be a really nice place to start with in the fall…
“The goal of the project next year will be for new student groups to revisit the original research and to expand and update the findings. Student groups will have the opportunity for more collaboration, and there is the potential for more classes to be involved from both schools.”
After discussing the pandemic’s effect on Morristown’s Latinx population with students in her Latinx American History class, Caprioli brought the idea of creating a task force to Doyle, knowing that Doyle's Dynamics of Healthcare students had completed a “fact vs. fiction” project on the novel coronavirus prior to schools being closed. Shortly thereafter, the duo had Wohltmann and nine MHS teachers from seven different subjects on board for the Collaborative Student Task Force.
Doyle explained that designing a collaborative project like this would allow the students to “see what it’s truly like to be on a task force,” which she described as “a true, authentic application” and something that has been extremely relevant during the pandemic.
In fact, students from both schools recently welcomed Isaac Loeb—Legislative Director for Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill’s Office—into their Zoom conversation, where he described the role of the Congressional Regional Recovery Task Force and explained what the students should know about what is currently happening on the legislative front.
“It was especially important for students to hear about how task forces work at the government level and how [Sherrill’s] office is interested in learning about their projects and findings,” said Wohltmann, whose entrepreneurship students have specifically studied the impact on businesses in New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District, such as which businesses qualified for loans, the phases in which certain industries can reopen, how they have been protecting their employees and more.
Doyle, whose students served as the project managers and were charged with organizing the findings into task force websites, explained that teachers from multiple subjects were needed in order for the project for work and that those involved needed to be open to the possibility that the experiment might fail.
“In order for this to work, you have to have teachers who are open-minded, willing to try different things and willing to fail the first time,” said Doyle, who knows Wohltmann from church and was enthusiastic when a colleague from another school jumped at the opportunity to participate. “We’ve never done this big of a project before, and we don’t know how it’s going to work or if it’s going to work, but it’s great to have people that are open and flexible with all of this.”
After opening the invitation to all MHS faculty members, Doyle and Caprioli were pleased with the extent of participation, which currently includes two media specialists and MHS teachers from the areas of Advanced Placement (AP) Biology, Bilingual World History, Business Organization & Management and Physics in addition to their two subjects.
“When you have relationships with a lot of people in your school and with other teachers outside of your school, it makes your teaching better,” said Caprioli. “You get that flow of ideas just because you’re having ‘Girls Night Out’ and can talk about what you’re passionate about, which is teaching and learning and pedagogy—so new things come about.”
Early on in the project, Caprioli agreed that she was skeptical about how or if the task force was going to work, but became increasingly encouraged by her conversations with the students.
“I think it will also open up an opportunity for all of us to think a little bit outside the box because we still don’t know what next year is going to look like for schools,” she said. “Whether we’re in this setting or we’re in a different setting, this pandemic has changed everybody’s lives; and if we don’t pay attention to [its impact] on the experience of each one of our students, then we’re not really reaching them.
“If this project continues in the fall, I think it really says to students, ‘We know what you’re going through, we want to be present in your experience, and we want learning and knowledge to be a factor on your lives that you can use and incorporate in everything you do.’ I think that it eventually creates not just a better learning experience for the students, but also a bond among the students and between the faculty and the students that makes the whole year go better for everybody.”
Wohltmann added that despite the challenges—such as the two schools having vastly different remote-learning schedules and the teachers needing to manage Zoom classrooms involving 40-plus students as well as breakout rooms—she noticed a heightened sense of participation among the students.
She stated that even when there wasn’t a clear vision for the project yet, the students were enthusiastic because it was something different and something that was directly related to their lives outside school.
Caprioli agreed, explaining as an example that her students’ role in the project has been to research the specific ways that the pandemic has been affecting the Latinx community since Morristown is known to have a large population of Latinx residents.
“Some of my students are looking into the financial fallout—especially among our undocumented population, who are not eligible for stimulus money,” she said. “That’s significant, and then there are also students looking at chronic illness. There is a larger percentage of Latinx and African Americans who have diabetes and asthma, and their regular checkups have been affected by the pandemic and not being necessarily able or comfortable going to a hospital.”
Other students in Caprioli’s class are looking at how the COVID-19 outbreak has affected learning, specifically for larger families who might not have access to multiple devices.
“There is some information out there as to how populations like Latinx and African Americans who have had a homework gap or a digital divide before that has been exacerbated by this situation and brought to the fore,” she said, noting that her students are working to determine “how to create more equitable situations for them within this context.”
Based on the information they have gathered on all of these topics combined with their analysis of COVID-19 guidelines being released through the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), the students also identified possible steps for schools to safely reopen in the fall.
Below are three examples of the websites being created as part of the ongoing Collaborative Student Task Force project.
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