WAYNE, NJ – In what seemed a blink of an eye, all of Wayne’s fourteen public schools shut their doors and forced their more than eight-hundred teachers and nearly eight-thousand students into adapting a distance learning model with little time to train and prepare. This week was the first full week of the new model and though it was not a perfect role out, students, teachers and administrators all agree that it was a success.
“Transitioning a district the size of Wayne to distance learning is no small task,” said Wayne Board of Education President Cathy Kazan. “We are grateful to the Superintendent, his staff, teachers and students for the professional and substantive manner in which they have faced this difficult situation.”
First-grade teacher at James Fallon Elementary School and First Vice President of the Wayne Education Association, Donna Reaver explained: “What you have to understand is when we roll out any new program, we usually have months and months to prepare for it. Then a grade level or a class will pilot it. Then we do hours of professional development over the course of months, followed by training before it is rolled out to the school system.”
“So, the fact that the whole district had to roll out an entire curriculum and basically change the way we’ve been teaching in just a matter of days is insane,” Reaver added with a laugh.
The changes began when the district closed schools on Friday, March 13 and used the day to begin preparing all of their teachers for what they hoped would never happen.
That Friday it was announced that Monday, March 16 would be a half-day and that the schools would close their physical buildings until at least April 13. The half-day was to allow Wayne’s teachers an opportunity to introduce the new distance learning model to their students that would begin on Thursday March 19.
A tale of two teachers
Wayne Hills High School English and Journalism Teacher, Donna Del Moro was asked if the transition was difficult. She replied: “For me it wasn’t challenging at all, because I’ve always been an early adapter to technology, so I know Google Classrooms, and I’m familiar with many teaching programs.”
For Reaver’s first-grade students, it wasn’t as easy. “These young kids, for the most part don’t really have google accounts yet, so it’s been hard because we can’t really do anything online for them yet, so we were relying on parents to get our information out,” said Reaver.
Technology is the key to the success of the program and Wayne’s school district was ahead of the curve for the older students. All high school students had already been given Chromebooks and most middle school students as well, but the program hadn’t been rolled out for elementary students.
Once it was known that the distance learning transition was going to happen, the district responded by supplying computers and WIFI for any Third, Fourth and Fifth graders who needed them. For Kindergarten through Second grade, the district is currently working to make sure all students have the needed technology.
“K-2 students were given hard copies of their assignments, and we are relying a lot on parents,” said Reaver. “They are sending us pictures and videos, anything to document their child’s work.”
High school students are very familiar with online programs and apps for filming and sharing audio and video files. As advanced as today’s first graders are, they are still far behind teenagers when it comes to familiarity with the kind of learning programs being used.
Google Classrooms or OnCourse are the programs of choice for the teachers throughout the district. These allow for sharing of lessons, giving assignments, streaming conversations, taking attendance and receiving work back as well as keeping track of scores and grades.
Del Moro also mentioned programs such as ScreenCastify by Google and FlipGrid. “The first assignment I gave was for my kids to read the first part of To Kill A Mockingbird. They then had to show me their annotations. Through Flipgrid, the students can film themselves presenting their annotations. So, I can really get an idea of their comprehension this way.”
Reaver’s students are using a hodgepodge of available technology. “We send daily emails to the parents with assignments and lessons,” she said. “A lot of teachers are sending daily videos of themselves welcoming the kids every morning, trying to keep to the normal routine to make the kids feel more comfortable. The kids will then watch the video on their mom’s phone or their dad’s laptop. Some kids are doing it on Kindles, whatever they have.”
Many parents think of classrooms as the way they were when they were younger, but the models have been changing. “It’s not like we are recording a lecture and having the students watch it,” said Del Moro. “We’ve been moving away from that type of teaching for years now, so this actually fits right in.”
Reaver’s thoughts were a bit different. “Every level has its own challenges, but elementary is its own entity,” she said. “It’s very different. Look at math on a first-grade level. Every day the kids use manipulatives, like counters, or connecting blocks; all little things to help them solve math problems. And now they don’t have them.”
The first-grade teacher was positive about future outcomes: “Kids are resilient, they will get it. It’s just challenging for teachers to come up with ways to teach them how to do it remotely.”
George Washington Middle School eighth-grader, Aidan Knick described the change as “weird.”
“It was different and a little confusing at first,” said Knick. “When I had questions, it took some time to get a teacher’s response,” he said. Because teachers have multiple classrooms, they cannot be as quick with answers as they are in person, according to the eighth-grader.
For Knick and the other Wayne students, they are given assignments for each of their classes every day. Some teachers are uploading videos explaining what is expected, some provide written instructions.
“Sometimes you have a lot of work for one class, and sometimes one class will be really easy,” said Knick. “I definitely get all my work done a lot quicker at home.”
The amount of work depends on the grade level, but according to Reaver and Del Moro, each student is expected to do anywhere from two – four hours of assignments each day, and generally have until midnight to turn in their work.
According to the teachers, feedback to the new model has been mostly positive.
“I think it’s working out well,” said Del Moro. “I’ve gotten a little bit of feedback and my students tell me they have more time to do some outside reading, so it’s been quite positive.”
Reaver added: “So far, I’ve gotten only positive feedback. I called all my kids just to touch base and to understand that I’m still there for them. A lot of them said they missed school, but they really seemed okay.”
Knick’s student perspective may surprise some. He was asked: What does he like better, being in school or the distance learning model? “I like being in school with everyone. I like seeing my friends at school, even my teachers. It feels weird being stuck at home. It’s not as much fun. At school I laugh a lot. When you’re at home, it’s different. It’s good to see faces and hear voices, and I miss my favorite teacher: Mrs. Ferreri.”
According to Reaver, teachers would agree with Knick. “It’s definitely a challenge being home. I mean some people probably look at it as we’re lucky to be working from home, but if you asked a majority of teachers what they would prefer, they would want to be back in the classrooms with their kids. That’s what we’re doing all this for: the kids.”
Student wellness programs are a part of the curriculum for Wayne Public Schools but are even more important in the face of a global pandemic. Dr. Mark Toback, the Superintendent of the Wayne School District said: “We all know this is a difficult time for everyone and the issues of stress, anxiety, and isolation have also incorporated into the online world we have created for our students.”
Friday, March 27 was International Social Emotional Learning Day, and all students were encouraged to take some time off from school assignments to work on themselves. The school counselors shared a fifteen-minute video explaining the importance of self-care and some techniques like breathing and emotion management.
“Our principals and teachers are doing everything in their power to bring some sense of normalcy to our students and community,” said Kazan.
This can be as simple as a recorded flag salute led by a student out in front of the school. Another example is the schools are incorporating their usual spirit week and asking students to dress-up while they work and share pictures on Instagram and Twitter.
Dr. Toback is well aware of the challenges for staff, students and parents. “We know better days are ahead of us, but for the time being, the teachers, counselors, and administrators are doing an amazing job of maintaining our instructional programs while facing their own challenges at home,” he said.
Kazan added: “Wayne is leading the way as a model to other districts on how to do this well. I've heard from colleagues across the state, and they are asking what Wayne is doing.”
Wayne’s Board of Education, its District Administration, the Teacher’s Union, Staff, Students and Parents don’t always agree on method and strategy, but Wayne Township is seeing what happens when all differences are put aside, and all parties come together to face a crisis of unprecedented proportion.
Wayne should be proud.