Remote learning becomes new normal for Union County students

County teachers adapt to ensure school continues

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UNION COUNTY — With COVID-19 cases in New Jersey continuing to rise and the effects of the coronavirus sweeping the nation, the pandemic has altered all lives in recent weeks. To prevent the spread of disease, schools across the nation have closed their doors until further notice, forcing students of all ages, as well as their teachers, to adapt to distance learning for the time being.

All tristate teachers and students have been affected, and they are now utilizing modern technology and other alternatives for education.

“Right now, this is feeling like a lot of us are first-year teachers again, as far as curriculum and how to reach out to parents goes,” said fifth-grade teacher Bryan Lowe, of Valley Road Elementary School in Clark, to LocalSource in a March 27 phone interview. “Every teacher I speak to seems as if they’re all in a grad-level tech-literacy course, because there are new innovations out there. We’re grasping at whatever we can use to help our kids.”

Multiple counties have been making good use of Google Meet, Zoom and other face-to-face platforms to interact with students. Lowe explained that this technique has eased anxiety among teachers, who have missed their students since the closing of schools.

“We’ve been using Google Meet and Zoom in place of face-to-face,” Lowe said. “It’s funny because, when spring break is coming, kids normally can’t wait to get out and have a break from school, as well as the teachers. Now, because this came so unexpectedly, we miss the kids, even though it’s been two weeks. I’ve noticed how teachers across the state are utilizing Google Meet and Zoom to see their kids, and, because of that, they’re getting emotional because they haven’t seen their kids.

“Using those platforms is almost like a therapeutic session for them,” he added. “So, it’s funny to see that. It’s interesting to see how this online learning is going to work. There are a lot of feelings of being overwhelmed right now, because we don’t know what’s going to happen next. We’re really redefining what it is to be an educator right now. It’s new territory that we’re embarking on.”

Fourth-grade teacher Catherine Alberico, who teaches at Franklin Elementary School in Summit, explained her experience with remote learning and how much of a work in progress this ordeal is.

“It’s been a learning curve,” Alberico said via phone interview on March 27. “It’s new territory we’ve been approaching because this is a new way of delivering instruction. We’re lucky the kids are tech-savvy. So far, it’s been positive, because it’s still a connection and it’s a work in progress.”

According to Alberico, she and her students are currently using Google Meet to connect.

“I typically have a time and a day to meet with students. I also provide individual time through Google Meet. It’s constant interaction and constant communication,” she said. “As teachers, we’re always thinking about students’ specific needs, and at times we need to differentiate our instruction, even if it’s through Google Classroom, Google Meet or some type of virtual instruction. We make sure students have what they need.”

Though it may be a challenge for some, others, such as Cranford middle school teacher Daniel Reppert, view this change as an interesting look at new educational options and have decided to embrace it.

“Remote learning has been an interesting challenge so far,” Reppert said on March 27. “After a decade of teaching one way, we were forced to shift almost overnight to remote learning. Teaching to me is so much more than just having students remember facts and dates. My goal is to have students develop the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed outside of the classroom. I’ve been trying to create lessons that will engage the students, as well as have them work on these skills. It has been a struggle for both students and teachers but a struggle that we can overcome if we can all work together, including parental support.

“Since one of my yearlong goals is having students be comfortable with using technology, most of them have adapted to remote learning. They are familiar with tools such as Google Classroom and Google Docs, so they were able to focus on the lessons at hand instead of trying to navigate the digital world,” he continued. “Being able to collaborate in real time is also a help. If they have questions about anything, they are able to ask in the moment. I have begun using Google Meet and Zoom to try to have more face-to-face interactions. Finally, I think it is beneficial when students see that the teachers are trying extremely hard to adapt to this new situation. Life is all about meeting challenges head on, and this is a prime example of it.”

Also teaching in Cranford is middle school teacher Thais Jackson, who described the special techniques she uses to interact with her students.

“The techniques I use with my learners remotely is an extension of the way I taught them in the classroom,” Jackson said on March 27. “In the classroom, my learners frequently used Google Classroom, Quizizz, Bookshare, Kahoot!, Raz-Kids, i-Ready and numerous additional online resources to supplement their learning. Now at home, the challenge is keeping them motivated and engaged, which I do by adding motivational videos to our classroom, engaging them in conversations, scheduling video chats via Google Hangouts and Zoom, providing class review games with peers using Quizizz, and frequent outreach to their parents about their learning progress. When you love your job like I do, the sky has no limit in reaching and teaching those you care for.”

Kimberly Leight, who teaches at Soehl Middle School in Linden, agreed with the sentiment of embracing change.

“Teaching has taught me to be flexible and embrace change,” Leight said on March 28. “It has taken some time to adjust, but, personally, I am taking this experience as an opportunity to be creative and find new ways to engage my students in meaningful learning. I miss my students, my co-workers and our routines so much. The dynamics of our classroom may have changed, but we are still maintaining our strong bonds. It is a challenge not being able to connect with my students in the same ways that we have been comfortable with all year long, but we are definitely making the most of this situation.

“It is so inspiring to see how quickly as educators we were able to come together to support each other and students,” she said. “Our community united together quickly to encourage one another as our day-to-day lives as educators changed. We didn’t have a significant amount of time to prep what we needed to provide meaningful learning online, but together we made it happen, and I am proud of my fellow teachers and our collaboration.”

According to Leight, it is fortunate that her students already had one-to-one iPads, as it has given them a form of constant communication and access to abundant resources.

“Considering we are lucky enough to have these resources at our fingertips, it is now our job as educators to determine how our students can utilize them to learn and reach their full potential from home,” she said. “Currently, I try to provide a variety of resources when assigning and delivering instruction, to ensure all students’ needs and learning styles are being addressed. There have been a mix of videos, screen recordings, games, readings and simulations. I am determined to continue to give my students choice, while strengthening their science literacy and overall scientific skills. I would love to find a way to incorporate some everyday engineering challenges and virtual field trips. They have proven in this short time just how strong, determined and independent they are. Their dedication to their education inspires me to be better.”

Third-grade teacher Jaime Geller, who teaches at Linden’s School No. 1, has found success with the ClassDojo platform.

“My third-grade team of teachers decided the easiest way to interact with all of our students would be to create an entire third-grade ClassDojo account,” said Geller on March 28. “Our students switch classes for different subjects, so we have about 50-plus students to interact with daily. We are able to communicate with both the parents and students so effortlessly. Throughout the week, we post assignments and positive, uplifting messages for the parents and students to see. We even have a joke of the day every Tuesday and Thursday. Our goal is to make this the most positive experience for everyone, because we are all in this together. As we say, we are Linden Strong.

“My experience with remote learning has been an extremely positive experience so far,” she continued. “It is amazing how everyone was able to come together with such short notice and create such a positive environment for these kids, who really don’t fully understand why they’re not going back to school for some time. Everyone has been exceptionally supportive as we dive into our temporary new normal. My superintendent, principal, vice principal and co-workers have made this transition as seamless as possible during such uncertain times. We are a great team.”

Over the past two weeks, faculty and students continue to learn, share and connect using the electronic superhighway across the Garden State. Danielle Roach, who teaches several levels of English at Mother Seton Regional High School in Clark, is among them.

“During virtual learning, my objective is to continue to make lessons fun and engaging for our students,” Roach said. “I want their experience to be one as if we were still in the classroom. I have found that an app like Google Meet, which integrates with our Google Classroom platform, allows the students and me to collaborate with one another because we can interact on a live video chat platform. EDpuzzle, another app I am using, allows me as the classroom teacher to track my students’ performance through video lessons with which they interact. These two engaging educational resources have been helpful in my English classes.”

Maya Bidiak, who is currently a high school senior attending Mother Seton Regional, feels upset with how the final months of her senior year are turning out but is thankful for the technology to keep up with her studies.

“Although I feel cheated of the remainder of my senior year and everything that comes with it, I am managing to see the positive in this situation,” Bidiak said. “I am thankful for technology, which allows me to not only keep up with my studies but also allows me to stay in touch with my friends. In a completely unexpected way, this experience has given me some extra time with my sister before I go off to college.

“Through Google Classroom, Google Meets and Quizizz, my teachers have made sure that I am still getting the quality education for which Mother Seton is known,” she continued. “I’m even taking my studies outside while practicing social distancing. Fingers crossed that we will all be bumping elbows in the halls of MSR very soon.”

Photos Courtesy of Teachers