With cell phones and laptops, Newark teachers stay connected with students during school shutdown

The news had barely gotten out last Friday that Newark was closing its schools when teachers started calling Jaz West-Romero.

The teachers at Luis Muñoz Marin School, which West-Romero’s four children attend, made sure she knew about the decision to shut down the schools. They asked if she had picked up district-made learning packets so her children could continue their schoolwork, and whether the family had computer and internet access at home. And they urged her to contact them with any issues while the schools remain shuttered, West-Romero said.

“I got to say, the teachers have definitely made themselves available,” she said. “They’re trying to do the best they can with what they have to work with — you really can’t expect much else.”

The coronavirus pandemic has turned education upside down in Newark and nationwide, forcing schools to shut their doors and parents to play the role of teachers. But actual teachers, while confined to their homes, are still finding ways to connect virtually with their students, whether through old-fashioned phone calls or more modern tools like Google Classroom and ClassDojo.

In Newark, the city is trying to facilitate those teacher-student connections by making sure every student has home internet access. A district survey found that 7,000 students lack internet-equipped devices, so the city will begin distributing laptops or other devices to those families next week, Mayor Ras Baraka said Thursday. He previously announced that the cable provider Altice USA will offer free internet access to Newark families with school children who need it.

It remains unclear whether the district has a system-wide plan for how teachers should stay connected with students or if different schools and educators are coming up with their own approaches. For now, individual teachers — some with children of their own to care for — are taking it upon themselves to continue posting assignments, reaching out to families, and offering support to students even when their physical classrooms have gone dark.

“As always, teachers are the rock in any crisis,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon.

Teachers, administrators, and other staff members at Avon Avenue School helped distribute assignment packets to students. (Courtesy of Avon Avenue School)

As soon as the Newark school district made the call Friday to cancel classes for at least two weeks, an extraordinary measure that officials across the country have taken to contain the coronavirus, Newark teachers sprang into action. Over the weekend, many teachers voluntarily showed up to schools across the city, alongside administrators and other staffers, to sort and distribute the homework packets to families so students would not miss a single day of instruction. 

At Avon Avenue School in the South Ward, teachers turned up on their own, with some even offering to drop off packets at the homes of families who couldn’t make it to the school, school board member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas said.

“There are so many more stories like this happening in and throughout our schools and community,” Murray-Thomas said on Facebook. “That’s the beauty of us. When it’s about our kids, we come together.”

This week, teachers continued calling families to make sure they collected the packets, which are available at designated schools that are serving grab-and-go meals. Teachers also helped with the district technology survey. 

The district has said schools are expected to reopen March 30. However, Gov. Phil Murphy this week ordered schools to close indefinitely, suggesting the school shutdown may last weeks if not months and intensifying the need for students to have home technology to stay in touch with teachers and complete learning activities. Some schools, such as East Side High School, let students sign out Chromebook laptops last week to take home; others, including Bard Early College and University high schools, distributed Chromebooks this week.

“It does look like we’re going to be doing this for a while,” said Al Moussab, a history teacher at East Side. “So in the early stages, it’s just making sure that everyone has access.”

Many teachers have spent the first few days of the shutdown fielding a barrage of questions from students and parents about everything from picking up school meals to completing homework packets to signing into online platforms. Teachers are logging long hours responding to the queries by phone, email, and apps such as Remind.

“I am tied to the computer and my cell phone from 9 a.m. until almost 8 p.m. answering questions and trying to help my students,” said Susana Alvarez, a bilingual teacher at East Side.

Educators are also using technology to supplement what’s in the homework packets. Teachers have recorded videos of themselves reading books aloud and posted links to experiments for students to try at home. Michael Dixon, a math coach at Ivy Hill Elementary, live-streamed lessons on Facebook Thursday where he worked through problems on a white board in his living room.

“This is the future,” Dixon told Chalkbeat, referring to the online tools that teachers are harnessing during the school closure. “Sometimes it takes a crisis like this to force people to use them.”

At Newark Vocational High School, a culinary arts teacher posted a slideshow on Google Classroom this week about cooking with dairy products, and a math teacher posted videos on how to add and subtract monomials, said Douglas Freeman, whose son is in ninth grade.

The shutdown has actually brought teachers and parents closer together largely through the use of virtual tools, Freeman said, explaining how his son’s teachers invited him to follow along in Google Classroom and jumped on the phone to answer his questions.

“I’m amazed at the technology we’re using today and how we’re able to participate now in knowing exactly what they’re learning,” Freeman said, adding that he hopes this level of transparency and communication continues even after schools reopen. “This is the piece that was missing.”

Students in Joicki Floyd’s English class at Weequahic high school continue to work on assignments based on the novel “Native Son” despite the shutdown. Using Google Slides, teams of students can remotely collaborate on group presentations where they analyze the book’s characters. Floyd plans to let students present their work by recording and posting short videos.

Like other teachers, Floyd said she’s committed to keep supporting her students socially and emotionally even though they’re now apart. The upheaval of students’ daily lives and the uncertainty caused by the virus has only heightened the need for such support, which many educators consider a crucial aspect of their jobs even in ordinary times.

“I’ve gotten about 50 text messages from students saying, ‘I miss you, what am I going to do?’” Floyd said.

At the same time as she’s keeping virtual tabs on her students, Floyd is also looking after her own four children at home; for a couple days, she even agreed to watch a few others whose parents still had to go into work. Like the larger school community, Floyd said her family has been doing whatever they can to make the best of a trying situation.

“We’ve been pulling together,” she said. “That’s what we do.”