LIVINGSTON, NJ — As this year’s student representative to the Livingston Board of Education (LBOE), Livingston High School (LHS) senior Aditya Desai has reported that Livingston Public Schools (LPS) had an “overall fluid start to the school year” and also offered his own perspective on how the district handled preparations over the summer.

Desai’s initial reaction to starting the school year with all-remote instruction.

“When [Superintendent] Dr. Block initially said we're going to be doing an all-remote environment, if you asked me my opinion two minutes after that, my answer would have been, ‘No, I hate this, I don't want to do it’…But then he described that the situation that's really perpetuating this isn't necessarily the health but also the teachers—and I think if any of the teachers, especially for advanced placement (AP) and very specific subject areas, were to just leave or not be a part of Livingston, then it would be detrimental to the student outcomes.

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“I think that the teachers are a big component of why Livingston is one of the top districts and why a lot of families move here for education, so I think that was something that could not be risked.”

How teachers played a role in Desai’s support of the all-remote start.

“There were really two main elements at play for me [when discussing the reopening of school].

“First—and even foremost to the academic area—there was really a deep emotional area. For me personally, being an upcoming senior, it was the element of being in school with friends and teachers for the last year of my high school career; and for parents that might have five or six year olds at home, that was the element of being at home to provide for them, while also being able to balance their work.

“With all of that considered, the other area that I looked at was the health risks. Sure, Livingston has a very, very low infection rate and by the CDC guidelines is technically safe to reopen schools, but as we've seen at universities across the country, the chance of that backfiring is so prevalent and something that we can't really ignore in the larger public health picture.

“I think that those are really the two different spheres that were tugging at one other and that really left schools in this hollow divide in the middle with ultimately the decision of, do we risk it or do we not and leave children at home?

“Nearly every single study that's out there and every piece of research has shown that kids are more succinct and more conducive to in-person learning; and based on what I experienced in the spring, I think that online learning is undoubtedly not on par with in-person learning in terms of academic integrity and creating that same type of interaction and openness between teachers and students, or even having those types of group projects and student-to-student discussions. I think there's so much insight that comes out through that, and especially in higher-level classes.

“For me, especially as we reached the March or April mark, it would be a lot of just logging on recording your attendance and leaving. Once AP exams were done in May, it was really just about getting through the rest of the year. Obviously that landscape is going to look different now that we're entering the year with remote learning, but I think in the grand scheme of things, it would be difficult if not nearly impossible to cover the same curricula to the same effectiveness over an online setting versus an in-person setting…

“[But] the whole teacher outlook—at least for Livingston, but I'm sure for a lot of other districts as well—made it really tough to even consider an in-person option…

“I'm taking six normal AP courses and multivariable calculus—so it’s definitely my toughest schedule so far at the high school, and if I didn't have one of the instructors who has been teaching those courses in for a while or who has the summer training—or even someone new who has all the experience that Livingston looks for when they pick out their teachers—I think that would make a huge difference.

“Bringing in a substitute and just replacing that teacher for the given two-to-three months’ leave that the experienced teacher might request for—whether it be for childcare or even personal health reasons—is a risk that's almost too great to take.”

Desai added that although it might look good in the short term to have all students back to school in person, having a less experienced teacher for certain areas would likely result in an even more detrimental learning outcome than if that course is taught online through the regular instructor.

Desai describes the major downsides to remote learning for all grades.  

“The number one thing that comes to mind that's almost undisputable is the connections with teachers.

“When it came to in-person learning last year, those connections were something that I really cherished. It could be as something as simple as going after school to ask a question to actually being able to work alongside your teacher to prepare for an essay.

“The friends component is definitely important, but I think that can be simulated with FaceTime or going hiking with someone. There are avenues to meet up with your friends outside of school; but when it comes to the teachers, now it's really this open-ended relationship where you know them on name-by-name basis, but are you going to have that same understanding? I think the answer is definitely no, and improving that gap is really difficult.”

Desai added that he supported having three weeks of half-day instruction to begin the year, but suggested to Dr. Block and the board that they consider using the bridge time for student get-togethers in small groups and additional in-person meetings with teachers.

“I think that having more instruction time is great and it's really instrumental to our learning, but at the same time, if we consider the screen time that students are getting and the amount of homework that they'll have to do after that when they want to go out with friends—all of that ties up to form that mental health component.

“Where’s the balance between having enough time in the online classroom and also giving students the opportunity to just be, quite frankly, stable and satisfied with their lifestyle? I think over the past six months, there's been a lot that we haven't been able to do that we would normally do, and just being able to progressively get back into that with the health measures in place is something that I value…

“One thing that Dr. Block has mentioned is having visits to the high school where teachers can meet with their students…Meeting in person even in small groups would be really helpful just in terms of having students be face to face with these educators who they can potentially be spending the next year with online. Even if it's brief, I think it adds a lot of value to our overall experience as students.”

Desai adds that parental involvement causes “more anxiety” for students.

“It started off as being this super optimistic outlook toward remote learning because it was something that we felt was necessary in such turbulent times and a lot of parents were very involved in students’ learning—especially at the younger age levels—and that was all well and great until the end of last school year.

“From there, a lot of students would be used to maybe going away for camp or maybe doing a summer program and having time off and then coming back and being able to go to school; and since all that has just kind of been wiped out and replaced with being at home and having limited abilities to go other places, that's going to add more strain to this upcoming school year.

“A lot of parents have been in favor of in-person learning, and a lot of them have heavily agreed that we should make every effort to get back in person. I think that's in part because when you’re coming up to back-to-school time, a lot of parents are used to going back to work and having that separation between their work and home environment, and now with the kids at home it's all mixed up into the same thing

“And that maybe takes away from their ability to be the best employee that they can be or the best parent that they can be. Parents just all find themselves at the intersection of two different realms, and there's little that they can do about it.

“From a student's perspective, while being around your parents is great—and I know myself and a lot of other friends have had really good times getting closer with their families over quarantine—when it comes to the academic year, once again especially for younger kids, having those parents constantly involved in your learning, it can get it could definitely get stressful at times.

“It could be as simple as how younger students approach multiplication or how they go through the progressive reading levels. I think that just because parents haven’t been in the classroom, it's such an arduous and large task for us to ask them now to essentially become these part-time educators along with teachers that are remote. It's undoubtedly a difficult, difficult task from both the parents’ perspective as well as the students’.”

The students Desai thinks are most negatively affected by remote instruction.

“There have been parents at the [LBOE] meetings that have gotten very vocal and very emotional about not being able to send their special education kids back to school.

“Being one-on-one with a therapist or their educator is really a core principle of their traditional programming, and just completely skipping that and forcing parents to take that role is almost impossible to do—especially if a household has two parents that are working full time alongside all this.

“The younger ages are also definitely more in that ‘negative-outcome’ category just because they are so used to being with friends and being teachers, and it's hard for them to grasp the task or more-so the idea that this is how it might look like for a while. Being with the same people in the house is another obstacle alongside that…

“In terms of people that might be more conducive to this online setting, I would say largely the older grades or even the high school level.

“I think it just boils down to a matter of adjustability—so how easily your students are able to accept, stay motivated and pursue learning with an online environment; and when it comes to high school students, they have more maturity and more development. At that point, they normally are able to grasp the core tasks certain classes or which projects really matter and understand all that and take it on.

“Being old enough to go out with friends on a hike or to a park by yourself also definitely gives you more adjustability and flexibility.”

Desai shares his thoughts on the lack of vote by the LBOE.

“I think the matter of not voting mainly came down to the timespan.

“When they announced the plan, it was ready mid August—so if, worst case scenario, it was disapproved by the board of ed, then that would really put Dr. Block in a harrowing position to make a decision, disseminate it to parents and students and be ready before the start of the school year

“I think that if there were to have been a vote, yes, there would have been some opposition; but overall, it seemed like most of the members were in line with this completely remote plan after listening to what Dr. Block had to say about not only what the health conditions are looking like, but also the factor of having nearly 150 faculty members saying that they won't be able to return in person and putting us in this position to having to go remote. So, ultimately I think it would have been well-received and approved by the board…

What Livingston got right, according to Desai.

“A lot of my friends in Chatham or Millburn or Summit, they initially opened up with an almost fully in-person learning plan, but it's largely been reversed back to remote once the newer guidelines were put out by Governor [Phil] Murphy.

“In other states, especially California near the Bay Area, some of my friends have also been in remote learning now since mid-August. Those schools are also really competitive, and some of them are much like Livingston—so I think they most likely also made that conscious effort to get students back in person, but at the end the day it wasn't possible, wasn't feasible and wasn't the best decision, so they opted for the remote environment.

“I think Livingston has taken the best option. I know that a lot of parents were definitely upset about it, but it was really the safest as well as the most apt decision with the outlook with the teachers as well as the potential for the virus to upsurge and have a flare in the community.

“One thing that I think Livingston did well is holding off their decision until they could really take an informed stance on what to do.

“I know a lot of parents earlier in the process were angry with Livingston because we didn't release a plan until early August when Millburn came out and did it in July. But Livingston knew this was an environment that's constantly changing, so [holding off] resulted in having minimum shifts from that first plan to the second plan.

“[For instance], in the first plan, we were only going to be in person for one day versus Millburn's plan to go in for two or three. So [the all-remote decision] was easier for Livingston parents to accept because they were already expecting to essentially have their kids at home for most of the time. Adding on one day to that load isn't too significant for them to adjust to...

“I think one of the common criticisms across the board has been that the governor never gave a clear direction on this. So instead of maybe putting out a plan for all schools to follow, he really left this to a district-by-district basis, which is going to cause a lot of disparities between what districts are doing.

“And if a few districts nearby close down, that might mean that educators in our town are no longer able to go back in person because they have home responsibilities to take care of, and it's really made it tough waters to navigate.”

Desai urges students and teachers to capitalize on the positive components.

“One thing that they're doing that's great this year is having more synchronous learning time, so we're having more teacher-to-student interaction even if it's online.

“That was definitely something I was lacking in the spring. I felt that most of my classes we were either just taking attendance and then leaving or we would go online for five-to-10 minutes with the teacher and then leave after to do our individual assignments that they gave us. Having more of that time between the teacher and students will not only help deter distractions, but I also think that it will help to kind of replace that bond that's built in schools…

“The other element that I think students and teachers will and should capitalize on is the after-school office hour that they're having.

“I know in the spring that very few students took advantage of office hours, and it was just a thing that teachers would have open for the sake of it. I went to a few teachers sometimes even if it was for a brief question, and then we would have a conversation about how everything was going and about how I was doing and about how the teachers were doing. So a lot of those organic things that happen in the classroom can be built, I think, if both students and teachers make a conscious effort to.”

Desai shares his thoughts on the first two weeks of remote learning.

“Overall, it was definitely a fluid start to the school year,” said Desai. “The administration has worked hard and hands-on with teachers and faculty to provide a plethora of access to remote resources, all the while making headway towards resuming in person learning when feasible.

“For me, a highlight was just the element of being able to reconnect with peers—albeit virtually. Of course, it would’ve been better if the administration could’ve implemented an in-person meet day for classes in a socially distanced setting. Even if it was only for a brief period of time, I truly think the face-to-face connection and notion of physically talking with others would be a huge relief in mitigating some of the mental/emotional burnout that a lot of students are facing.”

“Being a senior definitely adds a bit more sentiment into the equation. I think, first and foremost, everyone missed the conventional ‘first day of school’ celebration in the senior lot; and looking down the road, there are a lot of ‘senior things’ that won’t be carried out in light of public health measures.

“It certainly stings knowing that we’ve all worked so hard to reach this time, but at the same time, we’re cognizant of the fact that there’s little that anyone can do due to the pandemic.

“The best mindset from here on out is to make the best of it. While we won’t have a traditional senior year, it’ll be something different—something to remember—with (fingers crossed) a return to normalcy toward the end.” 

CLICK HERE to see some remote learning photos and read more about the first two weeks of school at LPS.