Lessons learned during the previous school year’s lockdown.

By Steve Adubato | September 12, 2020 | Appears in the September 2020 New Jersey Monthly issue

In March, as New Jersey went into lockdown, school districts across the state went into triage mode, quickly revising their curricula for the virtual-learning environment. By midsummer, with the lingering threat of coronavirus, it was clear that, come fall, at least some districts would return to remote learning at least part of the time.

For the state’s K–12 teachers, it’s been a time to reflect on the challenges of virtual teaching and ponder which methods worked best during the forced experiment of the previous school year.

Kimberly Dickstein Hughes, 2020 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, teaches 9–12 English Language Arts at Haddonfield Memorial High School. Hughes emphasizes the need for teachers to adjust to students’ individual needs and abilities in the virtual setting. “Equity is paramount,” says Hughes. That means, “talking about fairness, access and opportunity, and how we ensure that our students receive the best possible instruction while balancing the health concerns of the pandemic.”

Teachers must remember, says Hughes, that while some students may quickly adapt to remote classes, others struggle. “For the student that excels in a remote environment, [teachers] can have tasks ready to go when they complete an assignment,” says Hughes. “But then for students who are struggling to meet their level, setting a pacing guide will assist in meeting their individual comfort levels.”

Additionally, educators agree it is essential to remember the social and emotional needs of their students. According to Valarie G. Lee, a professor at the College of Education at Rowan University, one of the biggest concerns for the fall is ensuring student access to counselors, a school nurse, special education services and other services like interpreters to assist families.

“Students with special needs have access to modifications in the classroom, but those modifications work differently online,” says Lee. “Teachers need resources and training on what those modifications look like in a remote setting.” Lee says that we are in “emergency mode” figuring out all of this.

Hughes agrees that meeting the needs of special education and marginalized groups should be a top priority for the fall. “Schools need to have supports ready for educators to meet the needs of all students,” says Hughes.

Another concern is that many teachers are also parents of young children. They are teaching remotely and have children who are at home learning remotely. “For many teachers it feels like a 24/7 job,” says Lee, “because there is no clear delineation of when the work day begins and ends.”

Looking on the positive side, Lee says teachers are discovering through remote learning how children can demonstrate their abilities in a variety of ways. For example, some children who are shy in a classroom setting display more confidence communicating remotely. Also, says Lee, “Teachers are getting very creative and are finding ways to interact with children using traditional techniques like puppets and picture boards, while also using online books and other digital platforms and tools to engage their students.”

Adds Hughes, “We need to think about protecting our educators, students and communities, while also educating our youth. With the right resources, we can do that in a remote setting until it is safe to return to the classroom.”