PLAINFIELD, NJ — Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Queen City Academy Charter School (QCACS) is working to support its students as the school community navigates the “new normal” of the 2020-21 academic year.

And while these times are faced with myriad challenges and uncertainties, Danielle West-Augustin, the school’s Chief Academic Officer, said their mission remains the same.

“Each scholar will thrive,” West-Augustin said in a message to the school community. “We are excited.”

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Like many schools across New Jersey, QCACS began the year virtually and plans to phase in on-campus learning in coming weeks.

At QCACS, students at the K-8 school will learn remotely through Nov. 30, West-Augustin said.

When the school reopens for in-person instruction later this fall, she said there will be a number of health and safety requirements in place, such as daily temperature checks, mask wearing, and social distancing.

“It is clear that COVID-19 will make the 2020-2021 school year a year unlike any we can remember until an effective vaccine is widely available. The presence and behavior of the virus in our community will govern most of our routines, activities, and behavior.  Whenever and however we return to campus, our plans will depend on our trust in one another, a deep spirit of partnership, and, above all, our care for one another and for our community,” she said.

In order to ensure students can continue reaching their full potential, QCACS is taking several steps to offer a spectrum of support for families.

Following Gov. Phil Murphy’s order for schools to close last March as part of efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, West-Augustin said it gave QCACS an opportunity to refine “the systems in place for virtual instruction,” which helped a great deal when it came time to prepare for the 2020-21 school year.

Part of that process involved pushing back its plan to add high school grade levels to the 2021-22 school year because of the outbreak, she said.

“We knew that the stressors of the pandemic were still going to be here during the start of the school year,” so the school took specific, “strategic” steps, she said.

Virtual Support

One step involved bringing students in for a day prior to the start of remote schooling so that teachers could review learning platforms, such as Google Classroom and Zoom, with them, West-Augustin said.

“This also enables them to build that human interaction needed to establish a relationship with both teacher and a few peers,” she said. “Imagine never meeting your teacher until seeing them on the screen and you are in kindergarten or first grade.”

The school also changed up homework because teachers and administrators realized it “was another stressor for parent and child, so we made sure all work would be completed during the instructional block,” West-Augustin said.

A team was also created to notify parents – in real time – when their child had not signed in for school.

This past spring, administrators found that “because scholars have to sign on to multiple sessions throughout the day, we saw they may sign on for the teacher they really liked and not the others,” so they wanted to create a more immediate way to let parents know.

QCACS also continued its efforts to make sure all students can get online.

“In the spring, we provided over 40 hot spots,” West-Augustin said. “This fall we worked with families by getting them signed up with internet essentials providing low cost internet. We still have about three families we are still working with to get set up, but this has ensured that we now have families not just ready for the virtual instruction but also stepping into the 21st century with a service that is much needed just as a public utility.”

Social Support

In the absence of a traditional school environment and “the human, physical interaction portion,” QCACS sought to find ways to help students stay connected, West-Augustin said.

“In the instructional realm, we are excited to have partnered with the Coder School of Montgomery. It originated in Silicon Valley,” she said.

Through the partnership, students will receive instruction for free one hour per week and work on projects involving coding.

“We thought what do scholars love? And by far many like video games. However, we needed to ensure that our scholars who are majority Black and Brown students were not just the consumers of the games. Instead as an institution that is very committed to making sure that we provide and anti-racist and liberation curriculum, we wanted to flip the paradigm and ensure our scholars can eventually be the developers of the games,” she said.

QCACS also created “social pods,” which gives students “an opportunity to interact with their peers” once a month, when they are invited to school and can engage in a social activity with classmates, she said.

Family Support

For families who are struggling to make ends meet, QCACS is trying to help provide nutritious meals.

Each month, the school hosts a grocery drop, which gives families and students an opportunity to receive groceries for their entire family. QCACS is also continuing to distribute free lunch for students on Mondays and Thursdays.

“Please, if you are in need, don’t hesitate to reach out to us,” West-Augustin said.