A Newark principal participated in a national discussion about what instruction will look like when schools reopen in the fall – the hottest topics facing educators today as they seek to balance the risk of live classroom instruction with the challenges on remote online learning.

Tameka Royal, a principal at Uncommon Schools North Star Academy’s Fairmount Elementary, was one of four panelists who took part in the discussion sponsored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Also on the panel were Amy Mason, the principal of Madison County Elementary School in  Alabama; Dave Wick, the superintendent of Columbia Falls Schools District 6 in Montana and Ty Bell, the assistant head of school at Terra Verde Discovery School in Oklahoma.

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Uncommon Schools created a remote-learning platform for its students after Gov. Phil Murphy shuttered schools in mid-March in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. While the closures were initially intended to be for only two weeks, the governor eventually shut schools down for the remainder of the year.

Uncommon’s K-8 online platform was open to the public and allowed students from around the country to tap into lessons taught by master teachers, many of them from Newark.

Since peaking in late April, the coronavirus has been on the retreat in New Jersey, but the rate of infection has started to inch back up in recent weeks. The Murphy administration continues to press forward with plans for in-person instruction in the fall, though the state teacher’s union is calling for remote only learning.

Royal said Uncommon currently plans to start the school year with two weeks of remote learning before moving to a hybrid model in which students will be broken into two groups with half attending Monday and Wednesday and the other half attending Tuesday and Thursday - though the timing for moving to a hybrid model will continue to be in concert with state and local guidance and community conditions.

By mid-fall, she said, all students who need one will be equipped with Chromebook computers so they will be able to access all instructional materials.

Royal said one of the lessons she learned from when her school shifted to remote online learning in the spring was the importance of maintaining social and emotional connections with students and their families.

Before the coronavirus struck, teachers would have face to face contact with parents at drop off before school and pickup after school. After schools were closed, that was no longer an option.

“We needed to make sure that we were still having touch points with our families,” said Royal, adding that her leadership team and teachers called families regularly to check up on their social and emotional well being. Teachers conducted online group meetings with students to ensure their academic progress.

Royal said maintaining social and emotional learning was equally as important as ensuring academic progress.
“We don't have to choose quality instruction or paying attention to what our kids need outside of the instruction,” Royal said. “We have to do both. We just have to be really strategic with our schedule, with our time.”

Royal said it was also important for educators to put themselves in parents’ shoes and not make assumptions about why a student may be struggling. In an effort to accommodate parents’ and students’ schedules, Uncommon recorded all their online lessons so students who could not watch in real time could catch up later.

“It’s really just trying to meet every single person where they are,” Royal said. “We have to figure out what's happening and ask ‘what do you need from us?’ We have to be really flexible. The child still has to learn and so we have to figure out a way that we're going to still meet that child in that family.”