Examining the widely varying approaches to the upcoming school year and how best practices can be determined and shared

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

As part of its ongoing series on the changing face of education during the pandemic, NJ Spotlight last week hosted a virtual roundtable on what to expect this fall as teachers and students return to school, in whatever form it takes.

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Panelists:

  • Sabrina CapoliStudent Representative to NJ State Board of Education; Senior, Seneca High School, Tabernacle
  • Fatimah HayesHigh School History Teacher, Pennsauken School District; former President, Pennsauken Education Association
  • Dr. Arlene RogoVice President, Principal, Neptune Middle School; Coordinator, Monmouth County Elementary/Middle School Administrators Association
  • Dr. Brian Zychowski, Superintendent of Schools, North Brunswick Township

Moderator:

John MooneyExecutive Director and Education Reporter, NJ Spotlight

The following are edited excerpts from the Sept. 10 discussion:

Brian Zychowski: We’re all freshmen in this new world. So first and foremost, what we looked for in North Brunswick was to build a foundation of safety, security for our students and staff. How were we going to get back to creating a learning environment within the pandemic environment that does encapsulate, tabulates all of us? It’s really restricted us in many things we’re doing. So … we’re working on parallel paths. We’re setting up a safe environment that will be all-virtual right now. We do have a phase-in because our goal is to get our students and staff safely back into our schools.

Fatimah Hayes: So it’s been an experience, I’m going to be honest. When students enter my room, they actually log in just the way we did today for this program and even though they’re in person. My students are actually wearing a mask and on Google Meet, along with their classmates who are home for the day. It’s a challenge to juggle both platforms because we don’t want to neglect the students who are in person, nor do we want to neglect the students who are online during our class period.

It’s been a challenge [with] connection issues, getting everyone up and running. My last block of the day today, I was booted off of Google Meet three times.

Arlene Rogo: We are fully remote, every one of our students, sixth through eighth grade. They log in at eight o’clock in the morning and they’re logged in pretty much through 12:25 in the afternoon and they’re following their set schedule… Our teachers are actually coming in every morning. They’re working a full schedule, 7:25 to 2:25. And they are teaching from their classrooms directly to the students.

Everybody has a face shield. We’ve changed in the swiping-in system so that nobody has to touch anything. It’s simply done with your ID tags coming and going. We’ve afforded certain teachers, if they needed to leave at a certain time for childcare issues. We’ve made allowances for that out of 91 staff. I only have six at this point who are working remotely from home. So we really are providing as close to a regular educational experience as we can.

Sabrina Capoli: I will start going to school on Monday and I will be going every other day. And I’m just really excited to be back in the building and being able to see some teachers and administrators that I’ve missed from being out of school for six months.

I would say the climate for at least my student body at Seneca is kind of a mix… I think everyone is filled with excitement to be able to have something to do each day and have a place to go. But there are some setbacks that we have to deal with, obviously. Social distancing is going to be a challenge, and the new procedures in the classroom are going to be a big adjustment for those of us who have already been at the building for three years. Like myself, I’m used to a whole different Seneca High School than I will be going to now.

Biggest challenges

Rogo: I think one of the biggest challenges in the beginning is the equity issue as far as technology is concerned. We sent out messages in the spring and over the summer that if students needed a Chromebook to please reach out; we didn’t want kids using phones or if they didn’t have a device at home. And I think at this point, we pretty much have most of our students with Chromebooks and with the technology they need, because without it you’re not going to be successful.

But I think it would have been a little bit better if we had started that earlier in the summer, so that we could start off the first day with everybody having what they needed. I also think one of the things that made it a little difficult over the summer in preparation is not knowing what kind of a format we were definitely going to have.

Zychowski: What we didn’t know was that we would have to go virtual due to the fact that we just didn’t have enough staffing. We were just short of the number of staff members that we could bring back due to many other challenges and compromises that we had.

Not knowing, preparing multiple scenarios was very, very difficult for us. So what we would have done differently would be to have started our training all summer long, adjusted all summer.

Hayes: One of the biggest challenges has been just learning the technology, especially for the elementary grades, but for high school as well, because a lot of it was just learning on our own. We received one day of a three-hour training on a new smart learning package, and it’s just not sufficient.

If I could do anything differently, I would love to learn all the technology and know what we were going to roll out, if possible, back in March. That would have been wonderful for teachers, for educators like me.

Capoli: I’m a social butterfly and I know a lot of students at my school are the same way, and with the mask wearing and the distance between us, it would be difficult to hold a conversation in class. So I advise teachers to use small group discussions or Socratic seminars and things like that as a learning tool to get students engaged in class instead of just sitting there at the desk. Because one of the biggest challenges, I think personally, will be getting students engaged even through a computer screen.

Special needs children

Rogo: Our special needs children are self-contained classes. We are going to come in five days a week. We have a unique program in that we have an auditorily impaired program district-wide. So we also have a number of deaf children. And many of those students are getting class support settings as well as self-contained. So we are making sure that our interpreter and our in-class support teachers are with those children throughout their classes and working on ways so that we have the interpreter there as part of the screen with the classroom teacher.

Zychowski: Let me start off with a disclaimer that we know meeting the needs of our special needs population, our most vulnerable students, it’s not the same. We’re going to do the best we can, but it was very, very difficult.

We are currently going to start testing in-person those areas that those children need, to bring in-person working with our professionals. We will have special precautions and protections and our special needs population will be the first group of students that we’re bringing slowly back.

Advice to teachers

Hayes: I like a paper and hardback book in my hand to read and now my students will have to read their textbooks online in a PDF format. So having them tell me what they need, although sometimes they are not one hundred percent sure. But working through that has been in these first three days something that I’ve done. I’m saying, ‘Just let me know, am I going too fast?’

It’s a constant check for understanding. It’s been a challenge to me because in person you can see in their eyes if they got it or not, if I’m moving too fast. But doing it virtually and looking at little squares in a box and Google Meet in a class of 25, I can’t even see all of them all at the same time.

Capoli: Trying their best to be understanding to those students that have siblings, like becoming aware of the students that might have other responsibilities in their home while they are doing virtual is really important because for a lot of families, sending their kids to school gives them that care option. And if they are full-time, they have a full-time job and they’re in the office. A lot of problems arise for the other students that are already online and facing problems of their own, whether it’s with technology or checking for understanding in lessons and just being able to pay attention.

Parting advice

Zychowski: I will leave with I want people to know, our residents in North Brunswick and statewide — this is a temporary setback. The only way we’re going to get through this together is work together with patience and understanding, because I think our teachers, our educators are getting such a bad rap that we want to be virtual, we want to be away because it’s easier. I want everyone to know in North Brunswick, we’re doing great things because we’re working together, students, working with our staff, working with our administration, working with our community, working with our mayor and council.

Rogo: I think there is a big misconception that you don’t want to be in school. They do want to be in school, and I think staff are working so much harder trying to do this remotely. It’s very, very difficult. And people are online from 6 in the morning till 10, 11 o’clock at night.

Hayes: I want us to really concentrate on building relationships first, especially because of that virtual aspect. Students don’t learn from teachers they don’t like. They don’t learn from teachers they don’t trust. They don’t learn from teachers who think don’t have a vested interest in them. And we do that through building relationships with them. And it can happen virtually as well as in person. It is doable.

Today in my classroom was a Throwback Thursday and we were talking about what throwback candy or snack that they liked. And it made us laugh, and we were reminiscing. And guess what? We still got to the end of our objective at the end of that period. But taking that 10, 15 minutes is extremely important. These are students who haven’t been able to engage with their friends the way they’re normally used to. Even though they’re in person, they’re still not able to socialize and engage in the same way that they’re used to. Please build relationships.

Capoli: The biggest thing that I could say right now is just not to give up on this year. I just hope that everyone continues to stay positive. This is such a pivotal moment in our entire world, with the workforce, education, everything — everything is changing. And honestly, I think if we change our perspective on it and see this as an amazing thing that we get to experience, a lot can change. I think everything that comes out of this year is going to be a result of the mindsets that we have personally. So, if you, if our staff are staying positive, I think you’ll see that in the students as well. And I know I myself and my peers are super excited to learn in whatever capacity we can, whether that is [with] remote or hybrid, we’re just excited to learn.

Sponsor resource: PCG’s Free Special Education Planning Resource to Aid Schools’ Reopening Preparations Amid Pandemic

To read the article in the original format, click: Back to school in New Jersey: What to expect this fall