As told to Glenn Townes, NJ Urban News Staff

School districts currently face the responsibility of creating and offering effective teaching and learning opportunities in safe environments for their students, as world experts strive to address COVID-19’s impact on all of our behaviors and interactions.

Parents have always prioritized the safety of their children. As educators, we have a duty to create and maintain safe and supportive environments for the children we serve. We also have an obligation to leverage these environments to support effective teaching and learning. In our current context, particularly in urban settings, we must create solutions that do not rely on previous assumptions as they have all changed.

School systems are anchor organizations in communities. They provide direct and indirect supports to the community. They enable communities to grow and prosper, sometimes quite visibly and other times without fanfare or glory. They cannot be expected to work alone to address the issues raised by COVID-19. We must commit to working together across sectors to provide safe and supportive learning environments for every child in every school.

COVID-19 created a shock to the system. It dismantled the learning system and created a large hole in the safety net of many communities. COVID-19 also made conspicuously visible that schools provide a service to the broader community. They care for students at no additional cost to families while parents go to work. In my opinion, the question must be, “How do we construct functional learning and support infrastructure that is not based on old assumptions and addresses the realities of this new context?”

Reframe in-person learning

How then can communities create in-person learning opportunities right now?

In-person learning is dependent on having sufficient space to support safe interactions between teachers and learners. Typical classrooms in the United States are approximately 900 square feet. A room this size accommodates about 12 students and one adult adhering to safe distancing protocols. To guarantee in-person instruction, schools need to split their students into small cohorts. They then have to identify the resulting number of classroom spaces required to provide each group with one “classroom.” To expand the square footage needed for in-person learning, school leadership needs to collaborate with community partners. They also need to work with the unions, their staff, and parents to help create a shared understanding of why they are assigning teachers and students to spaces off of school grounds.

Leverage the virtual environment for its strengths

The virtual world allows students to access resources, including teachers and experts, that for many are traditionally out of reach, broadening opportunity and possibility. During the spring, many resourceful teachers shared resources they already had and investigated additional virtual space opportunities. Students benefited from this work. Students had private tours of museums, met with government representatives on Zoom, and participated in national forums to testify to their experiences during COVID-19. These are excellent and engaging learning experiences for students. They should not be rare and for the few.

The virtual world provides effective programming for individual practice and mastery. School leaders and teachers, searching for effective learning mechanisms, introduced many students to adaptive programs in math and reading. These programs assess students’ strengths. They provide learners with leveled materials they can understand. They then engage the student in a series of scaffold ed learning experiences that help them improve their skill levels.

The virtual world connects people effectively. School closures create conditions for teachers, families, and students to explore multiple methods of communication. Emails, letters, and postcards continue to occupy an essential role in communication. However, the virtual world, like phone calls and texts, supports a two-way, real-time conversation. It allows you to see the impact of what you are saying and how you are saying it.

Virtual learning is dependent on families having the devices and internet access necessary for productive work online. In the immediate, we must guarantee that every child in school has the appropriate equipment. We must guarantee that all students have a desktop, laptop, or tablet that allows video conferencing and multitasking. We must ensure that every household can access the internet at levels that will enable each student, and the working adult in the home, to connect simultaneously without the connection breaking up. In the long term, we must work at the community, city, and state levels to increase civic engagement focused on the equitable distribution of education resources for all students.

Create Systemic Partnerships to Facilitate Access to Quality Wraparound Services

In Governor Murphy’s Restart and Recovery Plan for Education, The Road Back, he rightfully outlines the need for school districts to plan for their students’ social-emotional well-being, to prioritize wraparound supports, including the provision of food to families, and to work to secure childcare for families. However, stating that “the NJDOE recommends school district teams include the following elements in their reopening plans,” is insufficient.

Given the economic downturn, the expectation of lower budgets, and the reality of increased costs due to addressing the required “Critical Areas of Operation” listed in the plan, school districts will have minimal resources next year to devote to these critical functions. They cannot be expected to work alone. The state, the county, and the city must coordinate efforts to promote and support system-level partnerships that will meet these community needs.

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