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For the Students
Local school districts are doing their part to provide a successful environment for learning whether in-person or remotely.

by Liz Hunter
The reopening of schools has been perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of life during a pandemic. After a spring of hastily put-together remote learning, parents and educators waited with anticipation to hear the fate of the fall back-to-school season. Gov. Phil Murphy made the announcement on June 26 that schools would open and would be requiring them to include some in-person instruction. Then, weeks later in mid-August, Murphy changed course and offered schools the option of an all-remote start to the school year.
With the knowledge that things could change at any moment, educators forged ahead with their plans to make reopening as successful as possible. Joe Bollendorf, superintendent of Washington Township Public Schools (WTPS), says the situation is fluid, but staff members have stepped up to the challenge.
“We recognize as educators how incredibly important school is not just from an education standpoint, but also for emotional and social support,” he says. “Those things are critical to humans, but more specifically to young minds taking shape. Having those support mechanisms in place are critical to healthy growth.”
Drawing on feedback collected from teachers, parents and students, schools here in South Jersey created individual plans, some of which are fully remote or hybrid, while also trying to address gaps in education as a result of impromptu school closures in the spring.
Dr. Carol Birnbohm, superintendent of the Lenape Regional High School District (LRHSD), which encompasses Lenape, Shawnee, Cherokee and Seneca high schools, says feedback from students and parents/guardians did have some crossover. The concern of live interaction and staying/keeping students motivated were the top two issues for both groups regarding remote learning.    
Along with internal insight from LRHSD supervisors and teachers, this feedback was paired with national studies and literature on the impact of school closures on student achievement and well-being, Birnbohm says. “The goal is to build upon lessons learned to improve our students’ remote and hybrid learning experiences, just as we would in a traditional classroom setting. It’s not part of our culture to ever be complacent; we continuously seek ways to enhance the student experience at LRHSD.”
To address the top concerns, Birnbohm says some priorities of remote education this year include encouraging teachers to develop and implement lessons and instruction to promote positive classroom culture, active student engagement and a growth mindset during remote learning. They will also have unstructured time every afternoon to allow an opportunity to design lessons for the benefit of students who are fully remote and/or in-person. “This will lead to greater consistency in all aspects of teaching and learning this year. An overwhelming 80 percent of district students chose this hybrid model, which enables students to have the option for in-person instruction every other day,” says Birnbohm.
Nearly 87 percent of students in the Haddonfield School District opted for the hybrid model of returning to school, according to information in the district’s newsletter. However, significant improvements were made to the virtual platform to benefit all students, including live-streaming lessons daily, more one-on-one small group virtual instruction and following a consistent pace across grades and departments.
Schools have also taken additional care to personalize plans for students requiring an individualized education program (IEP). Haddonfield worked directly with those parents to address concerns. “Students who are a part of our most vulnerable population requiring more intensive mandated services as per their IEP will follow a schedule that takes into account their varying disability and that will provide them with the attention and time necessary to ensure equitable access to the curriculum,” the district says.
LHRSD also recognized how some students struggled with remote learning, specifically those with IEPs, and responded with additional support and services. “These services varied depending upon each unique circumstance, but included the following: individual, virtual instruction with teachers, after the remote school day; individual, or group interactions, with paraprofessionals, who monitored and assisted students with organizing assignments, clarifying directions, providing guidance for how and where to access resources, and budgeting time;
technology and assistive technology to enable students to access education and communicate with others; etc.,” says Birnbohm.
A common theme among schools has not just been addressing the immediate educational needs of students. In Haddonfield’s survey of staff, “handling social/emotional needs of students” was the top support request among 50 percent of respondents. The district established a new partnership with Temple University’s Center for Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic, which will provide enhanced professional development for school counselors. Additionally, clinical interns will be available to provide mental health consultations for staff.
High schools in the LRHSD have access to wellness rooms, says Birnbohm. “Students and staff can visit the wellness room for a mental break, to talk to a counselor or staff member, listen to music or engage in other relaxing activities—still while practicing social distancing. Organized activities, such as mindfulness, yoga or virtual guest speakers, will be scheduled.” 
Even as WTPS announced a couple of staff at Hurffville Elementary and WTHS tested positive for COVID-19, Bollendorf says the element of risk is ever-present, yet staff continue to demonstrate their commitment to students and willingness to put themselves out there. “Staff have risen to the call at every level throughout the district because they recognize this is important work. What we’re trying to accomplish doesn’t happen without any one of them,” he says.

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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 17, Issue 6 (September 2020).

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