FLEMINGTON, NJ - When school buildings closed down more than a month ago amid the coronavirus pandemic, the education world flipped to virtual learning, forcing many students, alongside their parents, to adapt to a foreign classroom at home.

In the beginning, it was “totally alien” for resident Luis Calderon and his daughter Zoey, 8, who is a third grader at Barley Sheaf Elementary School. After about a week though, virtual learning became a standardized norm.

This will remain the norm for now, as schools are closed at least through May 15, per Gov. Phil Murphy.

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“We try to keep it as structured as possible,” Calderon said.

Zoey Calderon has a routine for her day, as she wakes up at a certain time and gets ready as if she is walking outside and heading off to school. She gets dressed, has breakfast and then signs in to her 10 a.m. Zoom session with her teacher and the rest of her class in attendance for about a half hour of instruction and an occasional special presentation or activity.

During one of the Zoom sessions, she was able to share a talent with the rest of the class. This opportunity to present was her favorite thus far, as she sang one of her favorite songs, while her father accompanied her on the guitar.  

“She enjoys seeing her classmates and interacting with them,” Luis Calderon said. “She is certainly missing them a lot, as someone who really likes being in school.”

There is an optional 11 a.m. Zoom session open for the students to ask questions on any assignments. After that, Zoey Calderon is on her own for the most part.

She has a 20-minute lunch and continues to watch pre-recorded lessons and work on the day’s assignments until about 2:30 p.m each day. It’s three or four hours of solid independent work in her bedroom.

“It’s almost like a full day of school,” her father said.

Virtual learning is different for everyone, depending on the day, class or situation.

Resident Nicole Piccoli noted how her fifth grade daughter, who attends Reading-Fleming Intermediate School, has struggled to keep her attention during this period of online learning. She says her daughter has viewed school at home as "extra homework," and often has trouble finding the motivation to get started.

She is “not her normal bubbly self” since schools closed, Piccoli said, and is wishing every day that she was back in normal school. Meanwhile, Piccoli's 13-year-old son at J.P. Case Middle School is just happy that the school day is shorter, as he is done by around 12:30 p.m. every day.

“It’s been a challenge, because she is 10, and this lecture format is not particularly conducive for a 10-year-old,” Piccoli said. “It’s more geared for a college student.”  

Like Calderon, she is trying to keep her child glued to a routine by establishing ground rules, “without being too absurd.”

“It’s asking a lot of her to do all this independently,” she said.

Piccoli said this is “just the nature of the virtual learning,” and feels like her child is receiving about 50 percent of the education she would be receiving if she was in the physical classroom.

“The socialization aspect is largely missing right now,” she said.

“There are very little positives,” Piccoli added. “It’s very hard to focus, and we are finding that we wish we had more space within our three-bedroom town house. It’s very hard to balance it all, and any aspect of privacy has pretty much disappeared.”   

She said one of the positives has been the teacher who has gone “above and beyond the curriculum,” and has spent extra time over Zoom with her daughter, acting almost like a counselor and a teacher.

“None of this is the teachers’ fault,” she said. “It’s the situation’s fault.”

The entire situation became even more of a challenge for her family, when Gov. Phil Murphy mandated the closure of state and county parks, as the family had been exploring a new park almost every weekend.  

The youngest children within the Flemington-Raritan Regional School District have forged onward with their education too.

Liz Rosetti, who has a 6-year-old kindergartener, Nora, at Robert Hunter Elementary School, said the school went through a “remarkably smooth” transition into virtual learning, and was impressed at how they were already well into virtual learning within a week after the schools shut down.

“Keeping her on schedule is critical to keeping her on track,” she said, of her daughter who is diagnosed with ADHD.

Similar to Calderon’s daughter, it’s been valuable for Nora Rosetti to have a couple live Zoom meetings where she has the opportunity to share some things her family has been doing at home. It provides some semblance of socialization, which Rosetti said is limited because of the virus, but remains one of the most important experiences of the kindergarten education.  

During this time, Nora Rosetti enjoys hearing most of her classmates share similar activities at home, whether that be riding a bike and practicing sports outside, or playing cards and board games inside. She is “super excited” for her third Zoom meeting Monday, she said, during which she plans to share that she learned to ride her bike without training wheels.

Emotionally, it’s also a lot for the kids, especially kindergarteners.  

“Nora has a lot of anxiety and fear, and doesn’t really understand what’s going on,” Rosetti said.

Nora's normal school day lasts from about 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. with breaks mixed in. During this time, she spends about two hours in front of the computer, watching pre-recorded lessons, reading instructions and updates, and doing online activities, as well as about a half hour of specials such as physical education and art.

“They are missing out on the normal everyday experiences, and it is a big challenge,” Liz Rosetti said. “But they need to do this, or else they won’t be ready for first grade.”

“It’s a lot more work for me,” she added. “With older grades, it probably gets easier, but I have to sit next to her basically all the time.”

Typically, Rosetti would have been working, or cleaning the house and running errands during the hours of the normal school day.

“Running errands is no more any way with the stay at home order,” Rosetti said. “The lack of work hurts financially, but I try to just be grateful that my husband is still working, so we haven't totally lost all income. Cleaning with a kid in the house 24/7 is difficult, but we have switched to trying to teach her to help out more with vacuuming, dishes and straightening up.”

The upper levels have their challenges too.

Krishiv Patel, 13, and Paarth Jain, 12, are in seventh grade at J.P. Case Middle School. While they too are locked into a routine, they admitted that  that routine sometimes includes them learning in their pajamas.

And the middle school students have their critiques of the new system, with a lot being crammed into the average day of virtual learning.

“I don’t feel like we are ready to have math tests,” Jain said. “There are a lot of formulas and they are very hard to memorize.”

Sometimes, he said, when he sits down to do an assignment, he feels he is having to figure it all out on his own, and it’s “frustrating” because it sometimes takes longer than the teacher says it’s supposed to take.   

However, Jain said, he started having live classes for the first time a couple weeks ago. These allotted times to meet live, he said, should improve his preparedness for math.  

“The live classes are useful,” he said. “We can ask questions, and we can say when we need additional explanations, or need to have a lesson retaught.”  

Patel, who unlike his friend does not have live classes yet, noted one of the drawbacks with online assignments is “people can very easily cheat with another device.”

But the socialization is what is still missing from the day.

“I like the fact we have more free time, but I miss my friends because I can’t see them as much,” Patel said.