PATERSON, NJ -  While technical glitches, limited instructional resources, and extensive screen time have posed issues for virtual learning, local students largely found ways to adjust to their unconventional school environments, according to a number who spoke with TAPinto Paterson.

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated quarantines created an issue for schools across the city, as well as the state and nation, if not globe, as students and faculty were no longer allowed to enter educational buildings. Districts were forced to adapt to online learning, which brought into greater focus a phenomenon known as the digital divide. Not all families can afford strong internet connectivity or laptops, which, at least initially, alienated some students from making the most of their online education. 

Mahima, a junior at International High School, detailed the struggle her brother faced when he did not have a laptop saying that he didn’t have a laptop for school, and, at least initially, was not offered one. 

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“For a little while he used my mom’s phone until my dad bought him a laptop,” she said.

As the reality set in that classrooms would stay closed for an extended period of time, Paterson Public Schools launched an initiative to provide all of their students with Chromebooks for them to complete online school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many students noted that this was helpful because previously, they would share devices with siblings or use cell phones to complete assignments, but they still did not have access to all the resources they had in-person. 

By September, Paterson Superintendent Eileen Shafer declared that the digital divide was closed as Chromebooks were delivered and students picked them up. Months later, on March 3, 2021, Governor Phil Murphy also announced that the state-wide divide was gone. According to state and school data sources, by this time zero students across the state lacked devices or connectivity.

Michael, a junior at Passaic County Technical Institute (PCTI), expressed that while he was provided with appropriate technology, many study services were unavailable at the start of the pandemic:

“[The Chromebook] was very helpful, the only thing I would say is other resources such as tutoring and after-school classes or libraries and things like that were difficult to find and it was difficult to learn,” he says.  “But I suspected that in the beginning because you know, it's a new situation and not many people knew what to do.”

Noting often that all students learn differently, some teachers have observed that online learning has benefited some of their students, especially those who are more introverted.  However, other students have felt that remote lessons have been more clunky. JFK STEM Academy (STEM) junior Farhan described the obstacles teachers had to overcome at the start of the pandemic saying that “technology isn’t really the teachers' strength but I and the rest of my class do our best to help them adjust to virtual learning."

“It was a little chaotic in the beginning, but now things run much more smoothly.”

As COVID-19 vaccines have been distributed, some schools, including PCTI and local charter schools, have started to open their buildings up for hybrid learning. Each district has a different schedule, but hybrid scheduling allows a limited number of students to attend in-person classes.  Even though this has given students and teachers a sense of normalcy, Michael notes that it has deepened the divide between online and in-person students.

“I noticed certain teachers are so heavily focused on teaching online students that they aren’t really helping the kids in school. And it’s really just a matter of trying to distribute the teacher’s help equally among both, in-person and online students, as much as possible,” he says.

Many students also note the challenges that come along with increased screen time. Since all of their classes and homework are online, it has become hard for students to focus for extended periods of time. To combat this, some teachers have implemented lesson plans to minimize student workload while getting the same messages across. Some students have also created personal motivation plans to ensure all of their work has been completed. Ashley, a junior at STEM, explains that she needed to maintain small habits from in-person school to perform well online.

“In the beginning, I was very persistent with my planner and ‘Oh this is a homework assignment I have to do today’ and I did that,” she says. “I stopped due to lack of motivation but when I noticed it -- you have to hold yourself accountable.”

 

Emdadul Haque, Stefany Morales, and Hillary Trujillo of the Paterson Youth Council contributed to this report.

This story was produced thanks to a reporting grant facilitated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and funded by New Jersey Children's Foundation.

 

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