LIVINGSTON, NJ — After two weeks of learning in a fully remote setting, Livingston Public Schools (LPS) students in Pre-K through second grade as well as self-contained special education students will be the first to experience the district’s hybrid instruction plan as they return to the classroom in cohorts beginning Monday.

“We could not be more excited for Monday, when for the first time since March, students will return to the halls and the classrooms of LPS,” said Superintendent Dr. Matthew Block. “While our youngest students will blaze the way, we hope to be able to bring additional students back to our facilities in the near future…We're hoping to have our [grades] three to five students transition to hybrid soon and our secondary students return as soon as we are able to solve our staffing issues.”

Parents and students in the groups returning to the classrooms this week have provided mixed feedback about the first two weeks of remote learning as well as their outlook on transitioning to the hybrid model.

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Livingston mother Mila Grushin, who has a newborn as well as a son in kindergarten and a daughter in second grade at Burnet Hill, expressed that although the hybrid model initially did not appeal to her family, it now seems like the better option after two weeks of all-remote instruction.

“It's not really that the teachers are not doing everything they can, because they are doing a really great job,” she said. “Even within the first three days, I could see our kindergarten teacher modifying—like on the first day, she gave them verbal direction and realized that wasn’t enough, so now she's recording directions along with the activity being introduced. But my son is a very hyper kid and needs to move around, so when he's logging off, that amount of energy in him, I just don't know what to do with him.

“Movement is so important for them, and they need to have frequent breaks. [Kindergartners] generally lose focus and attention even in person at this age, and I think having something on the screen is so far removed for them…I feel like they need to see the facial expression of the teacher, they need to be able to be in close proximity to the teacher, and the teacher really needs to model and demonstrate in person.”

Despite the difficulty of juggling a career while also being there for her two kids, fellow Livingston mother Marina Sharfshteyn, who also has a child starting kindergarten this year as well as a three-year-old at home, reiterated that LPS teachers are going “above and beyond” to ensure the best experience for students and had faith that parents and students would be able to adjust to this new way of life.

“Logistically, my husband has a demanding job and I work on Staten Island, and we always imagined the kids going to go to school full time, obviously; but now we just all need to be flexible and hope that the kids become more flexible and kind of learn from it and adapt,” said Sharfshteyn. "The next few weeks are going to be very difficult for all parents as the dust settles, but we’re all adaptable, and we will have to make it work. The kids need us, so we have to just buckle up and do it…

“When I moved to America from Belarus, I was three years old and started kindergarten not knowing very good English; and at that time, it was a big immigration wave. All these kids who were coming in April and May from off the boat or off the plane and into to kindergarten and were confused and miserable, they're perfectly fine adults who have adjusted very well. Nobody looks back says, ‘I missed half of kindergarten.’ This is okay. They're still getting something out of it. They have beautiful teachers who are really trying to make it happen for them, and I think it's going to work out.”

With two kids entering kindergarten, Grushin and Sharfshteyn agreed that starting the year with fully remote instruction is more difficult for kindergartners than the older elementary students, who at least knew the other students on their screen.

“For the kindergartners, these are strange faces,” said Grushin. “They don't know anything about these kids unless they happen to be friendly with someone outside of school. It’s hard for them to make friends like this; I mean, even adults struggle to really build a relationship over screen.”

From a student perspective, however, building strong relationships with other kids and then not being able to see them might be more detrimental than never having those friendships to begin with.

One student who felt strongly about returning in person was Burnet Hill second grader Scarlett Fox, who wrote to the members of the Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) over the summer urging them to "please open real school.”

“I am not comfortable with online school and I don’t understand online school and I miss seeing other kids,” she said. “I’m very bored of online school. I also did not learn in online school.”

After the first week of remote learning, Scarlett said she would miss the friends who “will have to stay home” while she’s in school, but that she looks forward to transitioning to the hybrid model because she misses “seeing [her] friends in the hallways and actually having a teacher in real life and not in just a computer screen.” 

She added that the one in-person meet and greet she had with her new teacher prior to the first day “didn’t really help” with remote instruction and that she would not find it difficult to wear a mask in school as long as she could see her friends and teacher for a few hours each week.

Scarlett’s brother, Stirling Fox, also had a unique perspective on reopening when he wrote his own letter asking the LBOE to “please consider [his] voice as a student with special needs.”

As a special education student entering seventh grade, Stirling said he has not been able to experience the typical benefits of his Individualized Education Program (IEP) through remote instruction, which includes having an instructional aide on hand during class. He also said he is “afraid of the possibility of failing and not being able to move forward” due to the “unavoidable distractions” in his house and less-interactive lessons.

“Since the contractor is here and the dogs keep barking when someone walks past the house, I am getting distracted,” Stirling said after the first week. “Sometimes I can’t get into the meeting and, ‘what the heck I can’t get in.’ I didn’t know my schedule, and that was confusing.” 

Stirling also said he misses the “peer support” that in-person schooling provides, stating that the remote model hinders his ability to “learn social cues” from his peers.

“The environment of being in a classroom, teachers are speaking to you more clearly rather than on a glitchy computer,” he said. “My peers would normally be next to me and I can speak with them. If I wanted to tell one of my friends something, I can do that privately in person. In person, you can understand people with body language, and I can’t on the computer…

“I don’t feel the same. I am in my bedroom with a computer in my face the whole time. I’m not with a textbook at a desk in a classroom with other kids. I do not feel like I am growing very much. I just think other students, too, don’t want to talk that much on the Zoom meeting rather than in regular class when they talk a lot.”

Since only students in self-contained special education classes are returning in person on Monday—meaning students who learn all subjects from one instructor as opposed to being in remedial classrooms for certain subjects and having a classroom aide for others—Stirling will need to wait until the district deems it appropriate to begin his Heritage Middle School career.

In the meantime, Stirling reported that he has a more optimistic outlook on remote learning this semester than he did in the spring.

“I mostly understand the teaching so far,” he said after the first week of school. “I think I feel optimistic and confident that this year will go well because I am used to this online learning now and I feel more comfortable.”

Students at the high school level are also itching to get back to school in person, but understand the district’s decision to bring the younger kids back into the buildings first. Many high school students have agreed that the concept of starting the hybrid model for Pre-K through second grade as soon as possible made sense from learning perspective as well as from a staffing perspective and a childcare perspective.

“I think that [starting all-remote] was smart for the high school because it's a lot easier and safer for both students and staff,” said Livingston sophomore Renee Hong. “However, I feel that it would have been better if they reopened the elementary schools because some parents probably have to go to work and aren't able to stay home and take care of their children who can’t stay home alone. I do understand that it is unsafe, but some might not have another choice.”

In addition to the youngest learners, who have difficulty grasping tasks online and are “so used to being with friends and being with teachers,” senior Aditya Desai also felt that it was important to bring back the special education students.

“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,” said Desai, who serves as the student representative to the LBOE. “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.”

To read more about Desai’s perspective on the reopening of Livingston schools, CLICK HERE.

Beginning on Monday, the first cohort of students will receive two days of in-person instruction, with the second cohort returning to the buildings on Wednesday.

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