NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – No squeak of sneakers sliding across the gym floor. No laughing in the lunchroom. No rush of students through the halls in between classes.
A hush has fallen over the 11 schools in New Brunswick, not to mention the Adult Learning Center and the Pathways Building that houses students enrolled in the P-TECH program.
Even before Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this week moved to shut down New Jersey schools, districts such as New Brunswick had closed their doors in response to the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak.
Health experts implore everyone to exercise social distancing, but that comes at a cost for Aubrey Johnson.
The superintendent of schools said he misses the deep, everyday connection with the students, faculty, parents and community.
“I missed the face to face interactions,” Johnson said. “Honestly. I'm missing some of that because sometimes just seeing kids walk into the buildings, talking to staff, talking to my colleagues - I think I'm going to miss some of that, honestly. That face to face (interaction) is really, really important.”
Otherwise, it’s hard to say whether the school district has missed a beat since transitioning to remote instruction. Teachers are teaching, students are learning and a district with some 10,300 kids has made a large-scale transition under extraordinary circumstances.
This was a plan weeks in the making, going as far back as Feb. 4, when Johnson dashed off the first COVID-19-related email to parents. At that point, the virus was just something that was on page 10 of your local paper.
Over the ensuing weeks, Johnson began holding meetings with community stakeholders and district principals. As the spread of COVID-19 began to hit our shores, Johnson and other administrators began to look closer at the district’s pandemic crisis plan.
There were also preparedness meetings with Mayor Jim Cahill and his fellow superintendents across Middlesex County.
When it became evident there was a good chance schools could close, a logistical plan was hatched to distribute Chromebooks to students who hadn’t already been issued one. That meant a cadre of staff working to get the Chromebooks unpacked and uploaded with software.
While this was happening, the district’s more than 700 teachers began to prepare to move their curriculum to an eteaching – to borrow Johnson’s term – model.
A lot of responsibility has been placed on the teachers, but Johnson has been impressed with the ways they’ve already devised to keep students engaged. He wouldn’t be surprised if some of the innovations become SOP when the schools reopen.
“Based on what I've seen, they are going above and beyond,” he said. “They're actually becoming so resourceful and creative and innovative in their ideas on how they're going to continue to teach students. I've seen online teachers, having Google Meetups with students, reading stories to them. And they're all sitting around and they're actually having conversation with them.”
The district and the community as a whole, however, have banded together to help get meals in the hands of students. In real time, Johnson has seen what he calls “the spirit of New Brunswick.”
For some students in New Brunswick, the breakfasts and lunches they get in school might be the only meals they have on any given day. So, it was critical to set up a distribution system that works.
Four local parks have been designated as distribution points where students can come on Tuesdays and Fridays and get multiple days’ worth of food.
“We had 150 people volunteer,” Johnson said. “We had some teachers to administrators, we've even had community organizations aske to support and say if needed, they’re on standby. So, we kind of developed like a rotating schedule so different people can come and help out. We have people that just want to do it every day because they really just want to take care of the kids and they just want to be out there helping in any way they can.”
What’s helped for Johnson is strong communication. He has teleconference meetings with the principals in the morning and then a meeting with his staff at 3 p.m. Ideas are shared, challenges are noted and strategies are devised.
How to be responsible for the education of some 10,300 students in the midst of a pandemic is probably not something they taught Dr. Johnson while he was studying for undergrad degree at Northeastern and his master’s degree at New Jersey City University. So, he’s just trying to keep his sense of humor – and a positive outlook - about him under trying circumstances.
“With my principals, I create a sense of humor just to relax people,” he said. “They just probably think like, ‘Wow, I've never seen this side of the superintendent.’ The strategy is to keep everything somewhat normal. You know, we're gonna get through this. Let's not forget about that.”