PATERSON, NJ – Even during a crisis, school must go on.

With districts across New Jersey shut down indefinitely as the state attempts to curb the spread of COVID-19, schools have spent the past few weeks shifting students to a remote learning environment. 

At College Achieve Paterson, e-learning has become the new normal for the 757 students and 46 teachers at the public charter school. But, as the school’s chief administrator, Dr. Gemar Mills, said, “The fact is, our new normal, simply put, is not normal.”

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Each school day is structured and includes brain training exercises, physical exercise, reading, computer work, humanities, science and social studies, along with virtual chat time between students and teachers.

So far, it is off to a good start but the goal for now is to “continue to ensure that student engagement remains at the forefront of remote learning,” Mills said.

On March 2, putting a worst-case scenario into action, the state Department of Education requested schools plan for the possibility of a long-term closure and said distance learning could satisfy New Jersey’s 180-day requirement. As the coronavirus outbreak grew, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered all schools and colleges to close, prompting them to launch unprecedented plans to teach students remotely for weeks at a time.

The governor recently said reopening them wouldn’t be revisited until at least April 17 and speculation is mounting that school bells won’t ring again before the 2019-20 school year ends.

Mills said, “As those of us in education prepare for an uncertain remainder of the school year, our priority must include plans to address how to keep students and families engaged and how to teach teachers, administrators and support staff, how to lead online.”

E-learning can be challenging for many districts, particularly ones located in low-income communities, but College Achieve Paterson sought to make sure its students were properly equipped to virtually attend class.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic unfolded in New Jersey, the charter school was in the midst of rolling out an initiative to distribute technology to students whose homes lack computers or internet access and help bridge the digital divide that exists in many low-income communities.

Thanks to a $200,000 grant through T-Mobile For Education that College Achieve Paterson received at the start of the school year, the school, in an effort to keep their students connected, distributed 300 Chromebooks and 500 HotSpots, according to Tiffany Robinson. 

Robinson, a 7th grade level chair and fundraising coordinator at the school, said a technology audit looked at challenges they faced and recommendations on how to strengthen the school’s digital footprint. School officials had already identified over 100 families without devices and internet connectivity at home and were in the process of setting up an implementation program. 

“Then, the emergency closing happened and we decided to get them to families as soon as possible so that we can be proactive in distance learning,” Robinson said.

According to Mike Piscal, founder of College Achieve Public Schools, administrators and educators “pivoted'' quickly to form plans for at-home instruction with daily teacher contact online.

In about a week’s time, online lesson plans were finished, the necessary technology was distributed to students and a delivery system for free breakfast and lunch was set up for students facing food security challenges. Besides Paterson, College Achieve has campuses in Plainfield, North Plainfield, Neptune and Asbury Park, and altogether serves 2,200 students – the majority of whom are black and Hispanic.

“From my perspective, where we were then compared to where we are today is astonishing,” Piscal. 

Technology “will never replace the teacher in the classroom, but, like it or not, we are now offering our students a virtual online education,” he said. “We are building feedback loops for students, parents, teachers and staff so we can constantly refine and improve our delivery.”

Robinson said remote schooling “has been off to a great start” at College Achieve Paterson.

“We are still aiming for 100 percent attendance during live sessions, but understand how the home environment makes this difficult,” she said. “We have been reaching out to inactive scholars daily and have seen drastic improvements in attendance.”

Some of the challenges the charter has encountered in recent weeks included “offering the needed support for all stakeholders: scholars, staff, parents and the community,” Robinson said.

But, “everyone has done their part to offer resources to all,” she said. “We are a family and will do whatever it takes to get through these difficult times.”

As of now, more than half of New Jersey’s 584 public school districts provided computers to students and are relying heavily on technology. Others, including Paterson Public School District, have distributed printed instructional packets for students to use for self-study.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 90% of homes in New Jersey have a computer or smartphone and 84% have internet access. A survey from the state Department of Education found that 259,000 families don’t have access to computers, laptops or smartphones, according to Gov. Phil Murphy.

In Paterson, where more than a quarter of residents are below the poverty level, 22% of homes are without a computer, tablet or smartphone. About 36% do not have internet access, data shows.

In urban areas, like Paterson, Mills said the outbreak’s impact for school districts “is akin to a tsunami of change.”

“This virus has forced districts to create alternative plans that encompass so many variables under the umbrella of urban education, including remote academic lessons, grab-and-go meal plans and childcare,” Mills said. “While many parents and caregivers are not working, some working families and single parents are unable to take time from work.”

“The variables facing families in urban school districts are broader than those in suburban and rural districts, although we are all in this together,” Mills said.

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