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Learning the Hard Way
The typical school day will look very different this fall as the pandemic forces changes to our educational system, but are educators and parents ready for what lies ahead?

by Matt Cosentino

When the COVID-19 pandemic first reached New Jersey in March, perhaps no facet of daily life aside from health care was more impacted than education. As schools closed across the state, teachers, whether they were well-versed in technology or not, were suddenly tasked with providing remote lessons and giving instruction through email or Zoom conferences. Parents who were now working from home found themselves committing a significant portion of their day to helping children access and understand their assignments. Students who were used to connecting with their teachers in the classroom and spending time with their friends were instead completing their schoolwork alone, unable to fully comprehend the crisis around them.

Mary Costa, a Washington Township resident and the mother of two boys, handled her new reality the only way she knew how—with humor. She documented her family’s transition to remote learning with hilarious Facebook posts, bringing levity to a situation that desperately needed it. From asking her “students” for signed permission slips for a field trip to the laundry room, to instituting nap time for her sixth-grader and bringing in “Daddy” as a special guest speaker, her daily announcements helped her friends deal with the same stress she was enduring through laughter.

“I think everybody was amused by my posts and they were looking forward to them,” she says. “I just did them in the moment; I didn’t plan anything. But I have to come up with new material for the fall.”

Although Gov. Phil Murphy announced in late June that at least some form of in-person education is expected to come back in September, nobody is exactly sure yet what school is going to look like and it is almost a guarantee that remote learning will remain part of the plan. Administrators and school boards throughout South Jersey are dedicating their summer to implementing new protocols to keep students and staff safe, while teachers, parents and students brace for what they hope will be a successful return.

Putting a plan together
There are a number of requirements and recommendations outlined in the state’s 104-page report on reopening schools, including the ability to combine in-person and remote learning through a hybrid schedule or split sessions; the need for desks to be spaced out at least 6 feet or have barriers between them; social distancing at lunch, recess and on buses; and mandatory face coverings for staff and visitors, which is also encouraged for students when social distancing is not possible.

“There’s no way it’s going to look normal,” says Tim Back, the father of a fifth-grader and a member of the East Greenwich Board of Education in Gloucester County. “I can’t see any district sending all of the kids back every day, just because there are so many rules around how to space things out and nobody has the facilities to do that. Our district measured it out and about half the class can fit in any classroom at any given point with the appropriate distancing. There’s just no good way to make it happen, unless you pack the classrooms and make the kids wear masks all day, which nobody is going to do and parents aren’t going to want.”

The option of physical barriers looks like a long shot; Back says the plexiglass desk covers his board researched range in price from $150,000 to $300,000 and might not be able to be installed by September anyway. For that reason, many districts seem to be favoring a hybrid schedule in which half the students come to school on certain days and the other half stay home for remote learning. Bringing in students in alternating weeks is another possibility for some districts.

“In the end, it’s a logistical nightmare,” Back says. “Being able to get the kids on the buses, get them in the building, get them screened to make sure they don’t have a fever and get them safely into the classroom where they’re not on top of each other, it’s essentially impossible to do it having every kid there every day.”

Haddonfield resident Megan York Parker has two sons, one in elementary school and one in nursery school. She runs the borough’s parent Facebook forum, so she has been in contact with many other moms and dads and given much thought to the issue.

“I’m fairly confident Haddonfield will be forced to offer a hybrid schedule—our district is housed in older buildings where space was already hard to find,” she says. “I don’t see how social distancing of 6 feet could be possible without reducing the number of students in the classroom at any given time.

“While I’m glad that my elementary-aged child will have the opportunity to return to some normalcy with reintroduction of in-person instruction, parents remain unsure what exactly that will look like, pending a district announcement next month. Socially and developmentally, I’m happy for my son, but I recognize that no matter what direction the district takes for hybrid instruction, some parents will be inconvenienced.”

Daycare will certainly be factored into the equation since parents are starting to return to on-site work and many families don’t have grandparents or neighbors to rely on for babysitting if the children are going to be home several days a week. Mount Laurel resident Erin Duffy, a mother of two who works as a guidance counselor at an elementary school in Mercer County, has heard one possible solution thrown around.

“Some people are saying it’s important for the elementary kids to be in school, more than the high school students,” she says. “So one of the rumors I’ve heard is that some of the elementary kids would go into the high schools, and let the high school students continue to go to school remotely. But nobody knows for sure.”

Whether all students in a certain district are returning to school, learning remotely or doing a combination of both, one thing can be counted on—plans are going to have to be fluid to deal with the uncertainty of the coronavirus.

“Within five minutes, this could all change,” Back says. “There could be a massive outbreak in the school, numbers could spike somewhere else in the state, and before you know it the entire school gets shut down and everybody is remote again. So we’re trying to take it one day at a time, one month at a time. You saw what happened with the restaurants; they tried to open and days before they shut them down. We expect the guidance from the state to change almost daily. Little things are going to change as the numbers go up or down.”

A new way of teaching
Pam Wilson (an alias since she wished to remain anonymous) has been teaching at a middle school in South Jersey for more than 20 years. Adapting to the pandemic this past spring was difficult enough from her perspective, but she was even more concerned with her students.

“I teach special ed, so my kids struggled,” she says. “I did have a few kids who really did well remotely. Because they were home they were able to do it on their own terms, in their own time frame and ask questions when needed. However, that was definitely the minority. The majority of students really struggled with time management and just trying to get a handle on the situation with no structure and no real schedule. We also had some who didn’t do anything at all.”

Wilson believes children will fare better in returning to the classroom, but the likelihood of a hybrid schedule does come with its challenges. “When we left in the spring, at least there was a rapport with my kids,” she says. “Trying to establish some kind of a relationship with kids when you’re only seeing them part-time is going to be difficult. Those kids needs to feel some kind of connection, especially some of my special ed students, and being there on a hybrid schedule will be difficult.”

Duffy has her concerns as well. “As an educator, I think it’s necessary,” she says. “I don’t care what anybody says, the kids need to be in school, especially at the elementary level for a lot of different reasons. I’m not surprised at the governor’s announcement, but I also don’t know how safe it’s going to be.”

She not only meets regularly with students and parents in her role as a guidance counselor, but also teaches lessons in the classroom for kindergarten through fifth grade and is preparing for both in-person and online instruction. “If and when we go back, it’s not going to be the same for a long time,” she says. “I have a feeling staff will have to be in the building five days a week, but I don’t know about students. I don’t know how one person can deliver in-person instruction and be on call for the other kids who are at home that day to answer their questions directly. It’s crazy but the whole world is crazy right now.”

Both Duffy and Wilson are worried about how masks are going to affect both teachers and students. It’s asking a lot for young children or special needs students to wear a mask for a lengthy period of time, while teachers may be hindered from getting their points across in addition to the discomfort.

“There’s no facial expressions, there’s no ability to read facial cues,” Wilson says. “In fact, I have a bigger concern—I have a deaf student coming up from seventh to eighth grade who reads lips. I know his interpreter will obviously be there for him, but with speaking through the mask and trying to hear, there will be a lot lost in translation. I think it will be difficult.

“[Plastic face shields] are a possibility; maybe not for the kids, but for us I would think that would be a better way. It will look goofy, but what doesn’t right now?”

What’s right for the children?
With so much information out there and no clear-cut path, it is understandable and common for parents to have conflicting emotions about sending their kids back to school. Mount Laurel resident Jamie Canataro counts herself in that group when it comes to her daughter, who is going into fourth grade.

“It’s so funny because I don’t know what I want,” she says. “I’m scared and I want to keep her home, but also she loves school; she loves the socialization and seeing her friends. Of course, I want to follow the trends and the numbers of New Jersey and our town. I just know that preparing for all the different scenarios with two full-time working parents is going to be hard—that’s where a lot of my anxiety comes in.”

York Parker has similar thoughts. “My priority for my 9-year-old son is his emotional well-being; I feel that in-person interaction with his teacher and classmates will greatly benefit his learning growth and his overall happiness,” she says. “Of course, I want to keep him physically safe, so we will gladly cooperate with ‘greater good’ efforts like masking, social distancing and continuing with regular hand washing habits.”

While Costa tried to have fun with the situation in the spring and enjoyed the extra time with her sons, she also realizes there is no replacement for school. “I think they definitely have to go back because I wasn’t equipped to teach them the way the teachers are,” she says. “My younger son was fine, and so was my older son for the most part, but there were certain areas where he struggled a little bit and I couldn’t help him.”

Back and his wife, a teacher, were around to help their daughter and still didn’t find the situation to be ideal. He expresses more concern for students who don’t have that parental assistance or even the necessary technology and a stable environment to work in at home.

“A lot of them are going to end up needing extra help when this is all over because they’re going to be behind where they should be at their age,” he says. “Luckily, most of the kids are going to be in the same boat, but you still have to know this stuff. I doubt colleges are going to change their requirements and SATs aren’t going to change.”

Canataro and her husband have taken the initiative by hiring two tutors for their daughter, one in math enrichment and the other in reading comprehension. She is receiving one-on-one instruction this summer through Zoom and it will continue in the fall.

“These kids are losing all of these skills that they had, and I can see that in my daughter,” Canataro says. “I’ve heard people say, ‘They’re all going to be behind.’ But that’s not what I want to hear—I don’t want her to be behind. A lot of parents are doing the same thing and the tutoring becomes a big expense every week.”

Adjustments like those will have to continue to be made at all levels of education. Nobody knows what the future holds, but the virus is certainly not going anywhere and teachers, parents and most importantly students will have to deal with whatever is thrown their way.

“I am optimistic—we are all doing our best in an unprecedented situation,” York Parker says. “Our teachers care so much about our kids, and our administrators and board of education are working hard to consider every angle for the safety and overall well-being of the kids.”

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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 17, Issue 4 (July 2020).

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