When New Jersey schools closed in mid-March to stem the coronavirus outbreak, educational leaders from nearly three dozen districts turned to Montclair State University for online resources and platforms and emotional support for their students and teachers alike.
Now with the governor’s decision on May 4, 2020, to keep New Jersey schools closed with remote instruction for the rest of the academic year, these same educators continue to find a big support network through the University’s Center of Pedagogy.
The lessons of this unprecedented educational disruption are still being learned, says Marilyn Davis, director of the Montclair State University Network for Educational Renewal (MSUNER), a school-university partnership.
“There are certain things that teachers require in this time of challenge,” Davis says.
MSUNER has responded with a series of workshops for virtual classrooms, expanding on its ongoing work with teacher preparation and development with partnered districts, teachers and administrators.
Schools and teachers are grappling with a host of issues as students learn from their homes, including access to technology. Even kindergarten has gone virtual, with students, like the little learners in the Verona Public Schools class of Kathleen Amora, a graduate student working on her MA in Reading, using Padlet, an online bulletin board, and Flip Grid to create and share short videos.
“We’ve been hearing for so many years how screen time is harmful to kids and now we’re at this ever-shifting ‘maximum’ time,” says María Cioè-Peña, an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning. “Teachers are learning technologies as they’re putting them into practice and parents are learning technologies as they’re trying to implement them.”
The transition has sharpened the disparities for children within schools and exposed inequities among districts. Statewide, about 90,000 students still do not have the home computers or the internet connections necessary for virtual learning, according to state officials. It’s been particularly difficult for students with special needs and bilingual learners.
“The things that we know about online learning just don’t translate to this situation because the situation is so cataclysmic and there are so many factors that are coming into play; factors that are being impacted at the same time,” Cioè-Peña says.
MSUNER workshops have provided tech support, including tips and tools, and finding educational websites with free access for students, while also focusing on what teachers need right now.
“We tend to forget that teachers have children too who they’re working with,” Davis says. “They’re up late trying to put lesson plans together for the classroom while simultaneously working with their own children to meet the assignments that their teachers are giving them. They have two prongs going at the same time.”
In many homes, students and families are struggling with the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 crisis, presenting another area of concern for educators.
“Teachers have deep emotions and they greatly care for their students. They want to solve every students’ problems,” says Klara Gubacs-Collins, associate professor in Exercise Science and Physical Education, who led a MSUNER wellness workshop.
“It’s just very difficult to do,” she says. “You have to go into the day with clarity and acceptance of what you can control in your day.”
The MSUNER workshops have provided ways to help students affected by grief and loss, while also providing teachers the tools to identify barriers to learning, including mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
That’s been the focus of the work of Steve Fiedeldey, a Montclair State adjunct professor in Psychology and director of special services in Ringwood, New Jersey. Fiedeldey, who earned master’s degrees in both Educational Leadership and Education Psychology at Montclair State, teaches restorative practices for classroom settings. “We need to step back on academic requirements to have the social connections that let students know we care about them,” he says.
The support is appreciated by Karen Cihlar, a district behaviorist for Kearny Public Schools, who brought back to her district the techniques learned in a recent workshop to teachers, families and especially students, for controlling stress brought on by the pandemic.
“Are children in need right now? I think the whole world is in need right now,” Cihlar says.
It is still unclear when and how New Jersey schools will navigate reopening. As Montclair State continues to assess district needs over the summer and into the fall, professional development will continue.
“I think something for us moving forward is thinking about, ‘How can I teach this so that students have access?’” Cioè-Peña says. “How do we implement a universal design for learning that crosses not only the boundaries of the classroom but also the boundaries of the school and home dichotomy?”
Associate Professor Jennifer L. Goeke, graduate program coordinator for Secondary and Special Education, adds, “The biggest thing I try to help schools remember is that this is new to all of us – in the coming months we’ll have a lot more information about our successes and failures that we can learn from as we move forward.”
“Right now, the most important thing for all students is continuing to provide effective, consistent instruction to the best of our ability,” Goeke says.
Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren
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