NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - After navigating remote learning on the fly this spring, educators will be tackling the challenges of teaching during the pandemic again this fall.

Rutgers has been rolling out services to help teachers and families prepare for an anticipated hybrid approach to in person and remote learning in public schools.

The Graduate School of Education (GSE) is offering a series of online workshops for educators and is looking to transform student teaching to help its partner districts. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has also launched an online forum to support schools, and the Abbott Leadership Institute (ALI) at Rutgers University-Newark is assisting caregivers as they adapt to change.

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“People are desperate for information. There is not a lot out there,” said Nora Hyland, associate dean and faculty director of teacher education with GSE at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “Our programs have always addressed issues of inequity, and are now addressing how COVID-19 has exacerbated those inequities and what we might do about it.”   

In July GSE launched “Excellence and Equity in Remote Learning: A Summer Series for Educators” and quickly saw its registration go through the roof. 

The five-week long series was born out of a collaboration between GSE, representatives from New Jersey public schools and community leaders. Topics tackle issues that came to the fore during the first go around with distance learning including the barriers facing emerging bilingual speakers, students of color and those with disabilities. It can be accessed on YouTube.

“We started with the idea that we’re not experienced in remote learning, because nobody really is who teaches K-12,” said Hyland, who has three children of her own ranging in age from 11 to 15. “We’re hoping school will be better structured for this fall because educators put the time into researching how to adjust to remote learning instead of just being thrown into it.”
 
To that end, NIEER, along with several partners, developed the Facebook forum “Moving New Jersey Schools Forward Amid COVID-19” to provide resources for schools.

“School districts must plan to meet the educational needs of children with considerable uncertainty and fast-moving changes in knowledge regarding COVID-19,” said NIEER Director Steven Barnett. “This forum offers access to the latest information including successful examples from other states and countries, support for the use of data in planning and continuous improvement of practice, and a way for district leaders to learn from each other how best to move forward.”

The forum includes live video sessions featuring a guest expert and remains available on YouTube and the group’s Facebook page. Topics covered include health risks to children and staff, how other states and countries have reopened (or plan to reopen) schools, what we can learn from child care, transportation, budget implications, PPE, parent concerns, teacher and staff concerns, arts education and social-emotional learning.

As part of its plan to provide remote learning resources, GSE is working directly with eight partner districts – New Brunswick, North Brunswick, Highland Park, Franklin Township, Rahway, Bound Brook, Neptune Township and Woodbridge – to reassess the best use of its 180 student teaching candidates during the pandemic.

The goal is to give them a top-notch student teaching experience, while helping schools fill gaps created by remote learning, budget cuts, early retirements and leaves of absence. 

“What I think teachers are concerned about is how do you attend to 10 kids in class and 15 learning remotely? Are the remote learners paying attention? Can they see or access the materials well? Who will answer questions asked through the chat function?’’ Hyland said. “That’s an example of one place that our teacher candidates could be an asset.”

And those baseline concerns do not even address challenges facing the many emergent bilingual students in the districts, Hyland added. “Many kids often need more support, particularly in an online environment, because of language barriers, poverty issues and availability of adults to keep a child engaged.”

Students and educators are not the only ones who’ve faced a learning curve since the spring. Caregivers are being called upon now more than ever to partner with schools and help educate their children, said Kaleena K. Berryman, who directs Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers-Newark. 

“We are asking families to do something unprecedented,” said Berryman. “None of us signed up to have our children learn remotely or virtually, and none of us want to send our children into a dangerous situation, so we need to be collaborative and flexible.”

Founded 20 years ago, the institute has taught more than 4,500 people, mostly Newark residents, to be education advocates in their community. The nonprofit also supports Newark Public School District in its efforts to engage and empower families. 

More than 100 parents enrolled in ALI’s five-week parent leadership program, which is available in both English and Spanish. Earlier this summer, 45 parents graduated.  ALI also provided one-on-one virtual tutoring sessions for 100 families in need last year. In addition, their Facebook series, Parent Power Hour, has attracted thousands of views and covered topics such as special education services during remote learning, changes in New Jersey graduation requirements during COVID-19, and Superintendent Roger Leon’s plans for the school year. 

Giving parents agency is especially important in a school district that until recently was run by the state, said Berryman, and is not immune to systemic racism. 

“Having local control requires a heightened level of engagement by parents. We must empower parents to lead in the education of their children, in person and especially remotely. Our families have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. This is an opportunity to listen to parents and build their capacity to support education in this new way.”