Students and teachers in Cranford address the challenges of school during the pandemic

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CRANFORD, NJ — When the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring, parents got to experience firsthand the challenges of being full-time teachers. Now, four months into the 2020-2021 school year, teachers from Cranford High School have experienced a whole new set of challenges themselves to which they have been forced to adapt.

“This year, I decided to return to the classroom, because I missed working with students,” said Anthony Rafaniello, the director of choral activities and music teacher at Cranford High School, on Saturday, Jan. 16. “Overall, it’s been extremely challenging and much more work preparing and navigating hybrid and remote teaching. We’ve all had to rethink everything we do. We all feel like first-year teachers, as we’ve had to adapt and create new lessons and activities to hone in on the most essential concepts and skills, since students have less time in class and most of the students’ work is occurring on digital platforms. You also have to be ready to pivot at a moment’s notice. The first time we had to transition to fully remote learning in the fall, I left all my sheet music on my desk, so now I keep digital copies of everything, as well as a set of hard copies at school and at home. I also keep my virtual classroom set up in my living room, next to my piano, so I can teach from there during our afternoon supplemental sessions or if we go remote.”

With chorus, Rafaniello said he has found it especially challenging because of the latency of the internet and network connections, which prevent him and his students from singing together in real time. The students rehearse on mute, so only when class is in person does he actually get to hear them. In order to reduce the risk of virus transmission, he’s found that the best place to sing is outside, so most of his teaching in the fall consisted of teaching outdoors by setting up a keyboard, speaker and chairs for the students. With help from community organizations, the district purchased canopy tents for outdoor classes and rehearsals. Rafaniello said the tents were a great help during the warmer weather, providing open-air classrooms, but he said never did he think he would have to rake leaves out of his classroom or start his day pushing water out of its canopy with a broom handle or take it down as a threatening snowstorm arrived.

“The pandemic has led to us doing things we never imagined,” he said. “Instead of having our winter concert in December, I created a virtual concert. Students sent me videos of themselves singing our pieces and I edited them together, another new skill I learned during the pandemic. But I’m really proud of how it turned out and how we were able to celebrate the students’ work. But overall, it’s been extremely challenging, and all my teaching friends are working to support one another, reminding each other to take time for ourselves and prevent burn out with some self-care.”

“My wife and I are both high school teachers and married about a year and a half ago,” said Kevin Jala, who teaches Algebra II and computer courses, on Sunday, Jan. 17. “We started the pandemic living in our one-bedroom apartment. While teaching from home was cramped, we were able to make it work, and we learned that we had no problems tolerating each other and being together for such long periods of time. In fact, we enjoyed each other’s company very much! When we returned to our school buildings in September 2020, the social aspect of school was definitely different. The students physically present in the classroom were small in number and physically spread out.”

Jala said it has been difficult for all his students to achieve normal levels of social interaction both with one another and with him. Another concern he said he discovered was obtaining student feedback, since students participating virtually tend to be less communicative. One technique that he said has helped with this has been using Google Forms, since he can ask all students to complete one to give him information on their comfort level with the current lesson and what they are learning.

“We have since moved into a house where we fortunately have enough space to each teach our classes without disrupting each other, and we have a good balance established for who handles various responsibilities when we are either both working from home, both working from the school building or when one of us is home while the other goes into the school building,” he continued.

Cranford High School social studies teacher Susan Turner, who teaches juniors U.S. History II at college prep, honors and AP levels, said one of the biggest difficulties to overcome has been the decrease in student–teacher relationships due to virtual learning.

“The pandemic has created several challenges that are atypical of my normal teaching routine,” Turner said on Friday, Jan. 15. She said switching from an in-person format using pen-and-paper assessments to an entirely digital/electronic platform for both instruction and assignments required some very quick lessons for both teachers and students. “Fortunately, the students are very tech savvy and were able to apply their social or recreational technology-based skill set to their academics, and Cranford quickly provided professional development for the teachers, getting us proficient in working with Google Classroom and Zoom/Google Meet. The spring learning curve was interesting for both teachers and students, and the start-up of the current school year in the remote/in-person hybrid model has been relatively flawless.

“The greatest challenge to overcome is the decrease in the student–teacher relationship development that happens on an increasing basis during a school year,” she continued. “Seeing the student less frequently and seeing many of them only as boxes on a computer screen has diminished that connection … that is customary in a traditional, in-person experience.”

Both teachers and students have been forced to adapt, and, when virtual learning became the only way to continue their education, the students, Rafaniello said, put a great deal of effort into their new learning schedule.

“I think many students are putting forth a strong effort in their learning, but the longer that this situation has gone, the more difficult it becomes for students to stay positive and focused,” he said. “At home, students are not in a focused learning environment. They’re distracted by everything at home, and looking at a screen all day is taxing. They also miss out on some of the social and community aspects of school. I think we took for granted the benefits of coming together, working closely, collaborating and forming bonds with other students. That socialization is such an important part of schooling, and, when you’re remote, you lose that.”

Rafaniello said he was really glad that, for the most part, Cranford had been able to maintain a hybrid schedule, so that there is some interaction between students. He admitted it isn’t the same when they are 6 feet apart and masked, but that it is important to stay positive for the students, so he tries to keep his class energetic and enthusiastic. Some days, he confesses, that has been difficult for him, so he can only imagine what it’s like for the students.

Jala feels the same way.

“I believe that many students who would succeed or at least perform adequately in person are struggling to do the same while learning virtually,” Jala said. “While there are some students who are making virtual learning work, there are also students who struggle because they have none or less of the in-person interaction with their peers and teachers, and being physically present in the school building helps many students to focus on the tasks at hand.”

Turner said she wouldn’t characterize the virtual-learning experience as incredibly difficult for most of her students, as the majority of them are as committed to doing their work at a high standard as they have been in prior years. She said they have developed skills in self-motivation and organization that have helped them to transition successfully to this nontraditional format. Turner said the opportunity to schedule one-on-one meetings with her students to further explain an assignment or give additional instruction on content-related material has helped, as a substitute for students being able to stay behind after class or to stop in to ask for clarification on something.

“That said, there are some students who are facing challenges staying motivated and engaged in the virtual-learning environment,” she continued. “These students need additional support from both myself and their school counselors. With those supports, they are able to manage the workload to an acceptable standard.”

One of the bigger challenges for schooling in the pandemic has been establishing a grading system, said Rafaniello.

“My music classes are very different from your traditional grading system,” he said. “But we’ve had to rethink everything, including all forms of assessment and grading. Some teachers and supervisors worked together during the summer to create common rubrics for assessment that took into consideration the issues in remote learning. We created an engagement rubric that is a tool many teachers are using to assess student participation during class.”

Jala said one of the more challenging issues proved to be making sure students submitted work on time, as that could affect their grades. “Hybrid/virtual school has necessitated a greater level of communication between school staff, parents and the student to help mitigate this,” he said.

Standards to assess student work were relaxed in the spring but returned to normal in the fall, said Turner. “Expectations for students are very clearly detailed at the start of the school year and they have a good understanding of what is expected of them, with regard to the quality and integrity of their work.”

Rafaniello said he thought the older students had adjusted better, although they still had to deal with isolation and its social and emotional toll. “The fact that we’re able to offer hybrid learning in Cranford is extremely beneficial to the students, so that they have some live interaction with one another. But whether we realize it or not, the pandemic continues to be a traumatic event, and we have no idea what the long-term effects will be on young children, teenagers or even adults,” he said.

Jala agreed that underclassmen were having a more difficult time adjusting to the isolation. “They are new to the school, and they do not have the same familiarity with school staff that grades 10-12 have,” he said. “They are dealing with new adults, as well as a different mode of learning.”

The freedom of hybrid classes has helped some students thrive while hindering others, said Rafaniello, but he added that it had taught them real-world lessons.

“We’ve seen some normally strong students lose their motivation and stop turning in assignments, while some students who struggle in school are thriving with the freedom and space,” he continued. “Some are working outside of school as essential workers, helping family members, neighbors, etc. I think it’s also been beneficial for students to learn that life is unpredictable, circumstances change and you have to be flexible, creative and understanding to be successful.”

For Rafaniello, the pandemic was a reality check for parents and the general public. He said it helped underscore the work of great educators, as teachers were forced to enter homes virtually with creative and engaging lessons. “Parents and the general public are realizing more and more just how difficult the job of a teacher is,” he said. “I hope that realization continues well beyond the pandemic.”

Jala agreed, saying that, since the last school year ended and committees were formed by teachers to plan for this year, Scott Rubin, the superintendent of the Cranford School District, has been excellent at facilitating communication between the different stakeholders in the district. “Because of this, each group has had the chance to understand the concerns of the other groups,” he said. “Teachers have also been good about expressing concerns and incorporating solutions to those concerns where possible.”

Even in the most ideal circumstances, teaching is challenging, said Turner. Parents who already recognized this will be even more understanding, she said; unfortunately, the parents who think teachers have it easy are likely to think they have it even easier now.

“There is no secret method that works for every student, and there is no one-size-fits-all remedy for the many and varied issues that arise every day,” she said. “It requires creative problem-solving and the ability to adapt to every situation in real time. Teaching is not for the faint of heart, and the pandemic has served to reinforce that.”

“Each and every day presents new challenges for a principal, but it is our responsibility to ensure that our students and overall school community are put in the best place possible to overcome those challenges, whether it is a pandemic or a wrong answer on an assessment,” Cranford High School Principal Mark Cantagallo said on Friday, Jan. 15. “Working closely with our students, parents, the district administrators, the Board of Education, the local health and safety officials, we have been providing the best possible education for students during this time.”

Cantagallo said there have been tremendous obstacles, but, despite those obstacles, they have seen some outstanding accomplishments in the most challenging of times. He said he has been impressed and proud of both the staff and the students, and he has been grateful for the support of parents, the community, his colleagues and the Board of Education.

“Each grade level has been impacted, because each year of high school brings different opportunities that may have been jeopardized by the current situation,” Cantagallo said. “I feel for all of the students. Our hope is to help them develop skills of perseverance, regardless of the situation.”

During the pandemic, the principal said, teachers haven’t had it easy, as they had to transition quickly to make things work. He said he hoped 2021 would be a better year, and, if everyone continued to learn from the events of 2020, their future would be something to anticipate eagerly.

“Since September, we have been open in a hybrid-learning model, with some students attending school in person and others attending at home, on an alternating basis,” he said. “We will continue to follow the current protocols and guidelines given to us by the state and the Board of Health.”