Flexible Schools Respond to COVID-19 Crisis
By Donald Gilpin
The schools are closed and empty, but remote learning is taking place with increasing intensity and purpose at the Princeton Public Schools (PPS). Technological devices like PowerSchool Learning, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Instagram, social media, email, and the telephone have replaced the desks, classrooms, and white boards of the PPS.
“It’s all about flexibility right now,” said Princeton High School (PHS) Principal Jessica Baxter. “We’re all learning and changing and evolving. It’s a minute-to-minute situation. These are unprecedented times.”
Early this week Assistant Superintendent Annie Kosek said, “Our teachers are finding creative ways to engage students through activities like virtual morning meetings, small and large group chats, live and videotaped lessons, funny motivational videos, ‘spirit days’ like Crazy Hat Day, and teaching in a Google Hangout. Learning is often best as a social experience, and our teachers are striving to maintain social interaction despite our current state of social distancing.”
Teachers and librarians are holding story time, which apparently has a calming effect on both students and their parents. Teachers are sending emails and making personal check-in phone calls, and administrators are staying connected through messages, songs, magic tricks, and daily food for thought using online platforms and social media.
“With only one or two days’ notice, our lives changed,” Baxter wrote in a letter to families on March 19, after the first three days of remote learning. “As educators we were told we had to work from home and teach our students remotely. As parents we were forced to figure out child care and the home schooling of our children in addition to either still having to go out to work or work from our homes. Our students and children were told they couldn’t come to school, see their friends, play sports, be children. Some kids became caregivers and children for younger siblings in addition to being full-time students themselves.”
She continued, “We all find ourselves in an impossible situation. But we are figuring it out, and kudos go out to everyone. The teachers are working together to share ideas and support students. Parents are juggling feeding and teaching their children in between conference calls. Our students are logging in to PowerSchool Learning each day, doing lessons, connecting remotely with friends, and still finding the time to post pics on Instagram for Spirit Week.”
PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane delivered his own message of gratitude and “applause” last week in a missive to students, staff, and families. “All of you have had your lives upended by the coronavirus,” he wrote. “All of you are feeling anxious about your own health and that of others; and yet all of you are finding new ways to continue learning and working and showing your care for one another.”
In a phone conversation Monday, Cochrane noted, “I’m glad I’ve been able to participate in this important effort. Overall we are doing incredibly well with remote learning.”
Acknowledging a few technology glitches in the first week and the fact that some classes, subjects, students, and families have had more difficulty than others, Cochrane said that overall the feedback from parents, teachers, and students has been “incredibly positive.”
“The hardest piece, I think, is transforming to remote learning,” he said. “This is particularly difficult for our youngest learners, where we need lots of hands-on activities, lots of transitions.”
In the first two weeks most elementary classes had paper packets for the students, and moved to a virtual approach just this week.
“There was a challenge to make sure we had computers for all those students, and our belief is that everyone now has access to a computer,” Cochrane continued. “That was one challenge. There was another challenge for teachers who had to transform lots of hands-on activities into this virtual experience. It was a heavier lift for our elementary teachers, and I really applaud them for the determination and creativity they have devoted to making that work.”
Students with special needs, in some cases, posed particular challenges. “How do we meet the needs of students with multiple special needs or autism in a remote setting?” Cochrane asked. “That’s been extremely challenging for us, for the students, and their families.”
Noting that students, teachers, and administrators continue to make adjustments as they go, he added, “At the same time we recognize that this is a time of emotional anxiety for all families. We can’t always have the same expectations for the level of learning that we have in a classroom setting without the background of a global pandemic.”
With spring break coming up, school officials are working on developing a list of virtual activities that are developmentally appropriate, engaging, meaningful, and social with a distance to help students and fellow parents during the April 3-13 vacation period.
In describing remote learning so far at PHS, Baxter noted that they were “still working out kinks,” but commented, “I have a staff of problem-solvers.” Three of those problem-solvers described what’s going on in their virtual classrooms.
Math and Computer Science
“Switching to virtual learning was not easy at all,” said veteran math and computer science teacher Graciela Elia. “It was not what I expected at all. I had to work very hard to reach out to my students. Many of them were easy to reach and kept in touch, but based on their feedback, they all felt lost and worried. I spent hours reaching out to everyone with emails and messages assuring them about the positive side of our ‘temporary’ current situation.”
She continued, “My goal in the first week was to give them a sense of safety and continuity. For those who were silent, I wanted them to feel confident using Zoom to be able to either see each other or just share screens. I reminded them that emailing me was an acceptable way to communicate.”
After confronting the challenges of distance learning and the diverse learning styles of her students, Elia decided to change her teaching style. “What worked best was to break up her lessons and deliver videos and other materials in small pieces,” she said. “That gave me the success I was looking for. Many emails with questions started to pour into my inbox along with Zoom meeting requests. Most of them told me they were happy to ‘see’ me and they felt a bit like being in school again. They shared what they were doing at home and how they were coping.”
Elia concluded, “We are good with our technology. We can do it very well. We are a strong community of teachers helping each other, and our students are able to adapt, and they are committed to learning. But being away from our school, our friends, and students — this isolation is the most difficult factor in this complex environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“I had never heard of Zoom three weeks ago, and now, while am certainly not an expert, I am probably an advanced beginner,” said biology and chemistry teacher Robert Corell. “I have learned how to use my iPad as a white board that shows up on the device that they are watching. I am learning to write bigger for the kids who are tuning in on a phone.”
Corell records his lessons or lectures in advance and places them on the PPS Learning Management System and on his personal YouTube channel so the students can access the material any time they want. He pointed out that it takes him longer to grade materials submitted virtually, but he is getting faster.
“With my students who are naturally school-oriented or are very comfortable with technology, it has gone fairly well,” he said, noting that his AP students, with the prospect of an exam coming up, were especially focused.
“I worry about my students who I do not see on a regular basis in my Zoom classes,” he said. “I have reached out to the families to ask what I can do to help, and most have been great to work with.“
Corell described remote learning as “much harder than going into PHS every day.” He added, “Furthermore I do not have small children at home. I cannot even imagine trying to do this while keeping an eye on little children.”
“I am most impressed by the camaraderie demonstrated by my colleagues,” wrote special education teacher Cecilia Birge in an email. “At the beginning of the process, some of us — perhaps all of us at different times — were fearful of all aspects of the remote learning process: technology may not work; kids may not turn in the work; we lose face time with the kids; and instructions for certain units may not be computer-friendly.”
She continued, “At times it felt like we were building an airplane as we were flying it. My colleagues really stepped up and helped each other out. Things began to fall into the right places quickly after the first few days. I have seen increased productivity from many of my students.”
Birge noted that for her own children, two at PHS and one at John Witherspoon Middle School, “Remote learning/teaching has become the anchor of our daily routine. Seems they grew up overnight and became more responsible.”
Birge also noted that the experience has forced everybody to “think outside the box. The cross-curricular discussions I have had with my colleagues are amazing! Nobody can say ‘when are we going to use math’ any more when ‘flattening the curve’ is part of our daily conversation. In many ways learning has become more applied. I know with my students, I demand a lot more critical thinking than usual.”
Admitting, however, that there were significant downsides, Birge focused on her daughter, a PHS senior. “I hope she will get to have her graduation and get to see her friends again before they leave for college, so we are all doing our part of social distancing.”