FLEMINGTON, NJ - The Internet has proven to be the biggest challenge for district schools dealing with distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The biggest challenge,” said Flemington-Raritan School District Superintendent Kari McGann, “is the great Internet divide. This pandemic has put front and center the difference between those that have and those that do not have. The lack of Internet connectivity for some families is detrimental and it’s worse every day.”

The reference was to schools being closed and students attempting to continue to learn from home during the pandemic.  

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McGann along with two other educators – Therese Squicciarini, a special education teacher at Reading Fleming Intermediate School, and councilman Jeremy Long, an English teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School – joined Flemington Mayor Betsy Driver and OEM Coordinator Corp. Brian McNally on their weekly online COVID-19 update Thursday.

The superintendent said she has spoken with leaders at Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Comcast, along with Rep. Tom Malinowski, about affordable solutions to the connectivity problem.  

“This pandemic is requiring creative problem solving from all people,” she said, offering kudos to internet providers that are trying to support kids and families.

McGann said she would be participating in a conference call with all Hunterdon County superintendents to discuss how they can leverage their joint buying power to lower prices and get more flexible contracts from these companies.

“That has been my greatest challenge,” she said, adding that 95 percent of the families are connected so far through multiple strategies, including the school district providing jet packs. “Right now we’re doing what we need to do to help families.”

Mayor Driver offered support.

“You know the borough is always there for you,” she said.

“Certainly, the last five plus weeks with this pandemic has continued to chip away at life as we know it,” McGann added. “Our kids are really doing a great job with remote learning, but our parents are most likely overwhelmed. It’s something that we’ve never experienced before.”

This next new normal that we’re going to experience is going to require determined, creative problem solving across the community, state and country, all hands-on deck, McGann explained.

Describing the process for moving forward, the superintendent said she has divided the issues into six big buckets: school operations, whole child support, school personnel, academics, distance learning and a catchall bucket.

In particular, she outlined three of these categories. Whole child support, she said, entails not just helping children who are struggling academically, but also mentally and emotionally.

School personnel includes supporting current staff and also deciding where there will be additional need, including nurses, custodial staff and bus drivers.

Academics means helping teachers prepare for the challenges ahead through possible professional development and new skill sets.

McGann said she is hoping school buildings will be open before September, but the feasibility of that is still unknown. She explained that while Gov. Phil Murphy has closed school buildings at least through June 30, he also said that a summer learning program is in development.

“So I, as a superintendent, couldn’t yet say that there will be no learning happening in our buildings this summer since we have an extended school year,” she said. “So that decision still remains open.”

Squicciarini said that transitioning to technology-based teaching was particularly difficult for some of her special ed students. She added that teachers have had to shift from focusing almost entirely on academics to also providing social and emotional support to students and families.

She said she spends from an hour to several hours a day with her students on Zoom. There’s one boy she said she has breakfast with every day at 9 a.m. as she “kind of walks him through his day” before he moves on to his next teacher.

“Funny,” Squicciarini said, “most students that would have said they hated school a few months ago are telling me that they miss the things that we have done.”

Long is wearing many hats in this situation considering he is a councilman, a teacher, a father of two students and the husband of another teacher.

“Leaving the classroom really changed the game for me,” he said.  

McGann also spoke a little about meals for children. Since the first day schools closed, breakfasts and lunches have been available to eligible families.

Now, however, McGann said food delivery and distribution is available to every family with a child under the age of 18. She encouraged parents not to feel embarrassed to ask for help, but to reach out to the school district.

Last Monday, the schools distributed 1,145 breakfasts and 1,145 lunches. This week, they are expecting that number to increase by 300.

McGann said she’s been told $176,000 in federal funding for the food program is earmarked for the school district. She added there have been many contributions, including one Flemington resident, who asked to remain anonymous, who donated $800 in grocery gift cards.

As the three academics spoke live on Facebook, the more than 40 people on the call posted applause and thanks to them and to all of the teachers in the district going above and beyond to support the community.