BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - How is virtual online classrooms working in Berkeley Heights? 

All public, private and parochial schools across the state were closed starting Wednesday, March 17, in action taken by Gov. Phil Murphy in the attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus COVID-19. Berkeley Heights Public Schools closed as of Monday, March 15 and began online classrooms on Tuesday, March 16.

Parents have given the teachers and administration praise for their quick transition of classroom to at home virtual learning through the Zoom App and Google Classroom.

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“Just wanted to let you know that the online schooling the Columbia and GL kids are getting exceeds all expectations. The tech is has been pretty seamless, the instruction solid and the interaction between the kids is much-needed in this time of necessary isolation”

“We wanted to thank each of you for your efforts during this unprecedented time. To say that the effort of the Administration, Board, Faculty and Staff has been Herculean would not be hyperbole at all. A well-deserved appreciation for all the educators continuing to put our students first”

“Very impressed at how quickly the schools put online learning together.  That’s why we live in this town. Thank you Dr. Varley, BOE, teachers, admin and everyone else who helped!”

For now, even the students have given positive feedback. "I think online learning is effective because we get to see our teachers when necessary and are still being assigned work, so we are continuing to learn. The biggest drawback of online learning is not being able to just talk to your peers if you have a question.Teachers seem well-trained in zoom and other programs because as far as I've seen with all my teachers, they are always on time and have no issues getting on and getting the students access to it and there haven't been any issues yet. My biggest concern about online learning to move forward would be taking tests/quizzes because I am not sure how that is going to go down and if we will have enough time with the shortened periods," said Gov. Livingston senior Danielle Curtis.

The Board of Education also recognized a job well done in the transition from brick and mortar classrooms into virtual learning centers. "We understand the immense amount of change over a short period of time and it can be stressful," said Doug Reinstein, President of the BHBOE. "Your dedication, resourcefulness and creativity to do everything possible while focusing on the best interests of our students was visible in countless ways.  You overcame an enormous challenge, and converted your regular, everyday teaching routines into remote learning, basically overnight."

"We, and the entire Berkeley Heights community, stand behind you, support you and have every confidence that our students are in good hands for as long as the current situation lasts," said Reinstein in a letter to the teachers and administration.

Dr. Melissa Varley, Superintendent of Berkeley Heights Public School District, couldn't be prouder of her staff. "I am so proud of everyone," said Dr. Varley. "It's just amazing. I think they [the teachers] are all stepping up. They're working so hard. They're doing a great job. And they're communicating."

When asked about how the youngest of students are adapting to online classes, Dr. Varley credits not only the teachers, but "we also have a great parent population and the parents are jumping in and trying to help as much as they can. We know that five and six year olds have a limited attention span, but Mary Kay McMillin Principal Annie Corley-Hand has stated that the teachers are doing a phenomenal job of trying to keep them focused while they're in class. And you know, they're doing the best they can."  For families that do not have access to computers, they picked up paper documents, and they're working on their own, said Dr. Varley.

Although the teachers are doing a phenomenal job, Dr. Varley worries that they don't shut down. "There's no off button, right?" She sent a reminder to her staff to take lunch -- take a break. "That's the time you just shut everything down," said Dr. Varley. "But don't think just because now you're working from home, you have to work 24/7," she said.  "I'm just trying to make sure that they're taking care of their mental health." 

Her hope is that schools will re-open mid-April. "I'm hoping that's what is granted, [however], I have no information to back that up," she said. "I know the Governor told us it would be at least two more weeks. So I'm hoping by mid April, we open up, and we're ready to go and kids can get back in classrooms and teachers can be back there because that's where they thrive -- is when they're all in their classrooms."

Columbia Middle School Principal Frank Geiger has stepped up like a rock star.  

Knowing that some students wouldn't read Mr. Geiger's long emails from a principal at the end of a long day in class -- he turned to video. His first video was sent along with a note telling the students how much they "Rocked it" after day one of online classes. "Guys, today you really rocked it. I saw so much good work and everyone really trying hard and doing their best. Day one is done and you did as well as I anticipated. Congratulations," said Geiger. Included in the email was a video he created for the students "Mr. Geiger's Garage on YouTube"---  that went viral, so to speak. He encouraged the students to keep up the good work and told them that he was learning too. 

 "So I thought I would learn something new myself and start a YouTube channel to at least keep my face in front of my students.  I talked with my family and it was suggested that I wrap it around the woodworking that I love to do, and so 'Mr. Geiger's Garage' was born. I start each video saying hello to my granddaughters since we haven't had a chance to visit, and some people laugh at my 'Mr. Rogers' routine of putting on my shop apron as I enter the room.  One night it took me four hours to upload the film, but I'm getting better at editing, and students are sending me suggestions and help.  I'm most comfortable when I am speaking to my kids, so it's as positive for me, as I hope it has been for them.  I've gotten a lot of mail from parents and students alike, so I'm going to continue both the email and the video's which now include specials guests on my own Zoom screen," he said.  

"As the principal of Columbia Middle School, I do hear from parents of younger and older students who have shared good news about other schools and heartfelt thanks. I can think of three specific notes that struck me as this remote learning began. The first was during the first day when I got a brief email from a mom who shared, 'I'm so impressed, my daughter is actually in class, working with her friends and teacher.' Another was complaining; in a light-hearted way, that she could hear her daughter jumping around in gym class in her bedroom. The third was when our music teacher told me he had full attendance and everyone brought their instrument.  It's a testament to how we were prepared, how we have been doing a lot of school work through the Google platform, and how well we are being supported at home by our parents," said Geiger. "Let's face it, it can't be easy getting them out of bed and to the remote class each morning.  I'm so impressed with our kids, and of course parents are a huge part of that."

Geiger couldn't be more proud of the teachers. "Let's remember there is a multitude of support behind the screen besides the teacher, but yes, they continue to be the 'face' and leader of the learning. From the use of the Google Classroom for sharing documents and links, to Zoom[which is a live streaming video app], the teachers have done what just a few years ago would have seemed impossible. Frankly, I was worried, but as I made my way around the building that last day, I saw drive and determination heading out the door.  I feel like the entire district had this 'we can do this' resolve that is rare in any group of people about to encounter a totally new challenge," he said.

"Surprisingly, I would say the technology has been the easiest adjustment, since it was so well embedded in our daily routine. A lot of companies have stepped up and allowed for more access, but Google and Zoom are used daily and have worked seamlessly with the various devices students are using at home. 

"What's been the most difficult for the student I think is simply not being at school. A young lady told me on the last day at the building that she felt like she was about to get a job and would miss school.  Children need and appreciate a routine, and at school, even though we have high expectations, there is a certain comfort being around your friends and trusted adults that is difficult to replicate in the remote environment.  Zoom allows us to see the whole class at once, and speak back and forth, but there's no high fives, or moments in the halls with Mr. Geiger or Mrs. Acosta.  I miss that," he said.

"My small efforts don't compare to what our teachers are doing each day, but I think I can help maintain some connection with our kids, which I believe is a critical piece of being a school principal," said Geiger.

Click here to view Mr. Geiger's Garage 3/20/2020 edition.

The Board of Education's next meeting is April 2, 2020 at 7:30 p.m. Visit the district website and Facebook page for latest updates.