Union BOE hears report about new virtual features

UNION, NJ — In a detailed presentation, the Union Public Schools superintendent outlined the district’s plans for reopening in September at an Aug. 18 Board of Education meeting held via Zoom.

Union Schools Superintendent Gregory Tatum discussed recent assessments surrounding a safe reopening of schools.

“Since our last meeting, a number of questions have arisen regarding the safety and opening of our schools in September,” Tatum read during the meeting. “As I’ve reported in the past, the CDC and guidance from the state continues to change. As we all know, the governor announced that all school districts may elect to begin the school year in a virtual format. The following assessments having been conducted in our district facilitated discussion to reopen safely.

“Supervisor of buildings and grounds reported that all classrooms in the district have some form of proper ventilation,” he continued, referring to Barry Loessel. “He has identified that all schools have three or more windows (per classroom) that now open. However, there are areas within the district that do not have windows in some office space areas. Mr. Loessel assessed the ventilation system in every school. He reported that all systems are working with the appropriate air flow. New filters have been installed and all rooftop air conditioning and heating units have HEPA filters and have been installed.

“Additionally, all window units have the proper filters installed. However, there are some areas in the district that will need renovation repairs. It was also reported that some of these repairs may be completed prior to the school’s opening but he could not offer a guarantee that this will happen. I was also informed that he will have all the schools tested for air flow respective to COVID-19,” he added.

Tatum also touched on staffing and supplies.

“At this time, approximately 300 staff members have initiated requests for a leave of absence or to teach remotely,” Tatum read. “This will have a direct impact on the hybrid programs because of the difficulty to staff for class size for in-person instruction reflecting social distancing requirements of 6 feet. School supplies are arriving daily. However, some of the personal protection equipment happens to be on back order and will be required to start the school year in an in-person fashion. This is an issue many districts are facing around the state.”

Tatum outlined his reopening recommendations for the school year.

“Therefore, I am recommending that our district begin the 2020-2021 school year in a virtual format,” Tatum read. “I’d like to establish a benchmark date of Oct. 15, 2020, to assess our progress toward a possible reopening of the district with a hybrid program on Nov. 1, 2020. I must caution everyone that this date will be subjected to changes should the district not be ready with all of the requirements to restart the hybrid model.
“I’m also recommending a revised calendar that would begin instruction on Sept. 9,” he continued. “It will provide additional preparation for our district’s possible opening with the remote plan.”

According to Tatum, the administration and board would further discuss virtual learning at each school in an Aug. 20 planning session.

Assistant Director of IT Craig Wojcik provided an overview of the virtual concept and what will be available for students and teachers.

“We’ve been working to bring some resources into the district to be able to prepare us as we potentially move towards virtual instruction,” Wojcik said during the meeting. “Over the summer, what we’ve been working on is the Teacher Technology Team, better known as the T3, which has been providing training throughout the district to our district staff. So far, we’ve done weekly training starting at the end of June and we’ve done three per week up until the end of July, and then starting in August, we’ve been doing six per week. We’ve done a total of 40 training sessions to date. We’ve been averaging around 200 teachers per week showing up to our trainings.

“The T3 is working towards creating consumable information for the teachers,” Wojcik said. “Our YouTube page is available for teachers to go back and rewatch the videos that we’ve been posting. We’re continuing to work now to prepare those same types of consumable content for our students and parents. When we do go to the virtual environment, they’ll have some resources at their disposal to make sure that they’re trained on what they need to do on their end.”

According to Wojcik, the district brought in a new digital platform for the 2020-’21 school year.

“First, I want to start with G Suite, which seems like something we’ve had for a while. But one of the moves that we’ve made is to go to Enterprise for Education,” Wojcik said. “What that will do is, as Google rolls out their new features, specifically on Google Meet, we will have those in-district. But this upgrade also provides a lot of other features to the district that will be valuable to us as we move forward.”

This new platform provides teachers with better options to monitor students’ work.
“This will provide all of the staff access to Plagiarism Checker,” Wojcik said. “They can actually check students’ work against the entirety of the internet, as well as our local storage on Google Cloud. More importantly, it allows us to determine where our students’ data is stored. Specifically, making sure that the data is stored in the United States. We want to ensure that we’re keeping our students’ safety and privacy a primary concern as we move forward.

“Nearpod is one of the new platforms that we brought in, which is an actual instructional delivery tool,” he continued. “It allows the teachers to make every lesson interactive. It puts many functions like delivery instruction, informative assessment, video with teachers’ designed assessments built into the videos, collaboration. It does all of that and it puts it in what we call in IT ‘through one pane of glass.’ So, instead of the students and teachers having to move from one platform to the other, they’re able to provide all of those features within one platform. It’s an ease of design for teachers as well as students.”

According to Wojcik, Nearpod also allows lessons to be applied in all potential environments. Using Nearpod, the teachers, as they prepare lessons, will be able to work in virtual, hybrid and traditional instructional environments. Nearpod also contains curated content across a variety of content areas and a shared library where teachers can curate content and share it within their building or within their district.

Other new features include GoGuardian Teacher and Newsela.

“GoGuardian Teacher is a difference maker when it comes to virtual instruction,” Wojcik explained. “One of the things we tried to do when we were in the classroom was to break down the four walls of the classroom and create opportunities for the students that we couldn’t provide inside the physical walls of the classroom without the technology. GoGuardian Teacher provides teachers real-time viewing to the students’ activity. They can identify and correct students who are off task and they can communicate passively by sending a message through GoGuardian Teacher or they can do something more engaging and place a video call or a phone call directly to their district Chromebook. This builds an opportunity to see what students are doing within the class even though they’re elsewhere.

“Newsela aligns with our existing ELA curriculum and has content across a variety of content areas,” he continued. “It allows teachers to assign authentic articles for the students to read that can be catered to their individual levels. So, the teacher can assign an article to the entire class and each student can read that article at their level. The content will stay the same, but the sentence structure and the vocabulary will be leveled based on the student’s needs. There’s built-in assessment tools which determine student comprehension.”

Remaining additional features are Flocabulary and Zoom.

“Flocabulary is more of a supplemental tool and is in the Nearpod family. It provides hip-hop videos and instructional activities that promote literacy and spark creativity,” Wojcik said. “It’s just a different way of delivering information, and it has curated content across a variety of content areas.”

As for Zoom, Wojcik said the district is currently creating accounts for all staff.

“We’re just waiting for the licensing to go through,” he said. “The reason that we opted for Zoom in-district was because a lot of the tools that are relatively critical for delivering virtual instruction are not going to be released by Google until their earliest date, which is the end of September. They have dates that roll out all the way into November.

“The ability to ‘mute all’ and have breakout rooms, with all of these features, a lot of people are becoming familiar with in Zoom. They’re not going to be in G Suite for quite some time, so we want to make sure our teachers have the ability to do what they need to do,” he added.

Wojcik is confident in the new digital platform.

“We believe that the combination of these resources will provide opportunities for our teachers to deliver instruction that is at a very high level and is high quality for our students,” he said.