Virtual learning, special education, summer school: What you need to know now that Newark schools will remain closed

A student taking an online class. Newark classrooms are closed for the rest of the school year, leaving students to learn from home. (John Nacion/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It’s official: virtual learning is here to stay this year.

On Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy said that school buildings will remain closed this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. The order means that the more than 36,000 students in Newark’s traditional public schools — along with those in charter and private schools — will spend about a third of the academic year learning from home using laptops, cell phones, or paper packets.

The extended shutdown has profound implications for student learning and well-being. It also raises some urgent questions, including: What should learning look like while schools are closed? And what will happen when they reopen? Below, Chalkbeat provides some answers.

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How long are schools closed?

School buildings must remain shuttered through the end of the academic year, which is June 22 for Newark Public Schools. 

Districts schools have been closed since March 16, meaning students will spend 13 school weeks out of their classrooms.

During that time, schools must continue teaching students remotely in order to meet the state requirement of 180 annual school days.

What about summer school?

It’s still unclear whether any classrooms will reopen this summer.

Murphy said Monday that the state education department will form a committee to determine whether any summer programs can safely take place at schools.

Across the country, districts are still deciding whether to offer summer school in person or online, as well as whether to make it voluntary or mandatory. Several large districts have already announced plans to hold summer school remotely, and some experts say that is the most likely scenario.

In Newark, the district has not made an announcement about summer school. But Superintendent Roger León said in a recent message that “plans are already underway” to offer virtual summer school, if necessary.

What’s the plan to reopen schools?

Big changes are in store for schools whenever buildings reopen, whether that happens this summer,fall, or later.

First, enhanced safety measures are likely to be required. Those could include half-full classrooms, staggered schedules, and mandatory facemasks. Some educators are calling for universal coronavirus testing for all students and school employees — a precaution that would force the state to dramatically ramp up testing.

Next, schools will have to provide intensive support to students who fell behind during remote learning. Some experts are predicting major learning losses during this period — what some are calling the “coronavirus slide.” The district may need to extend next school year or vastly expand tutoring, though both options could present logistical and financial challenges.

On Tuesday, León announced the formation of a steering committee to help guide the reopening of schools, but did not give any further details. During a virtual forum last month, Newark school board member Asia Norton said the district is considering various ways to catch up students who fall behind, including one-on-one tutoring and Saturday classes.

Finally, schools should expect a surge in mental-health needs among students as a result of the pandemic. Schools may need to offer workshops on coping with stress and anxiety, and counseling for students who experienced trauma, including the loss of loved ones due to the coronavirus.

What is remote learning? Virtual learning?

Remote learning means that schools must continue educating students while they remain at home during the pandemic.

To guide remote learning, the district created “learning at home” packets with weekly assignments in every subject for students in each grade. The district initially printed out thousands of paper copies of the packets, but has shifted to electronic copies that are posted online

The packets recommend 30 minutes of math and 30 minutes of reading per day for students in elementary and middle school, with other subjects — including science, health, and art — spread throughout the week. Most high schools have come up with their own virtual schedules that tell students what online classes to attend and work to complete each day.

In April, León said schools were going fully virtual. Teachers can post assignments from the learning packets on Google Classroom, give live video lessons on the videoconferencing tool Webex, and assign additional learning activities using online programs such as iReady for math and Lexia for reading. The district has posted tutorials for parents, students, and educators on how to use those online tools.

How are schools taking attendance?

Students are responsible for showing up during virtual learning, and teachers are in charge of taking attendance. How that works varies by school.

Many teachers say they ask students to post a message in Google Classroom each day to mark themselves as “present.” Some teachers also track attendance during virtual lessons. Meanwhile, the district says that students must submit assignments to be marked present.

The district has not shared daily attendance rates during remote learning; last month, a spokeswoman said the district was “unable to calculate” that rate. 

While reliable numbers are not available, anecdotal reports from teachers suggest that some students are having trouble attending class virtually. The reasons include limited computer access, older students juggling work or childcare responsibilities, and families coping with illness or death caused by the coronavirus. 

How is virtual learning going?

Virtual learning in Newark varies by school and even student.

Some students were well-positioned for virtual learning, with home computers and parents available to supervise their learning. Other students lacked devices (more on that below) or have had to balance learning with jobs or caring for younger siblings.

Teachers have also taken different approaches to virtual learning. Some have been teaching live lessons on platforms like Zoom or Webex, while others are mainly posting work online and calling or messaging families. One parent who has five children at the same South Ward school told Chalkbeat this week that only three of their teachers are giving virtual lessons.

Some parents have expressed frustration with the patchwork of virtual learning practices that vary by school and teacher. Others have run into inevitable tech challenges, such as problems logging into Google Classroom or glitches with Webex. 

Still, most teachers are working overtime to keep students learning remotely; many have spent long hours calling, texting, and emailing families to help answer their tech questions and check in on students.

Do students have the technology they need?

Schools have distributed thousands of laptops to families in recent weeks — but some students still lack the necessary technology for virtual learning. 

Newark Public Schools began loaning out Chromebook laptops shortly after buildings closed in March, while also partnering with internet companies to offer temporary free WiFi. To date, the district has given out roughly 10,000 Chromebooks, León said in a message to families Tuesday.

However, last month, León said 2,100 students still needed laptops. A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions for this story, but several teachers told Chalkbeat that some students still lack devices even after schools loaned out all their laptops.

The laptop shortage has forced some students to share computers with siblings or rely on cell phones; some parents without computers have texted photos of students’ written work to teachers.

District officials have appealed to private funders for donated laptops, according to people with direct knowledge of the request. The officials also said some teachers lack home computers.

On Wednesday, the district announced that Panasonic Corporation of North America is donating 70 Toughbook laptops to the top-performing high school seniors. The donation is valued at $130,000, the district said.

Meanwhile, some families have reported challenges with the free WiFi, especially when multiple children in the same household try to use it simultaneously. And some parents have had issues signing up for the service, including undocumented immigrants who were asked to provide social security numbers.

The challenges are not limited to Newark. More than 90,000 students statewide still do not have the necessary technology for virtual learning, state officials said Monday.

What about students with special needs?

About one in six Newark district students receive special education services.

During the pandemic, districts are required to provide those students the same virtual learning opportunities as their non-disabled peers “to the extent appropriate and practicable,” according to a new state law. The state also gave districts the go-ahead to provide certain services, such as speech or occupational therapy, by phone or video chat.

Some parents have reported positive experiences during the school closure, with teachers reaching out regularly to check in on students with special needs and offer some services remotely. But others have complained about limited support, including learning packets that were not modified to meet their children’s special needs and uneven outreach from schools. 

Many students with disabilities rely on the structured environment schools provide and the constant assistance of aides and specialists. Even under ideal conditions, that level of support is hard to offer remotely.

What’s the grading policy during virtual learning?

Students are receiving letter grades during virtual learning according to the district’s usual policies.

In response to the pandemic, some districts have scrapped letter grades or adopted “no harm” policies that prevent students’ grades from dropping during remote learning. Newark has not announced any such changes, though León did give students extra time to submit assignments before report cards were distributed virtually last week.

“I extended the third marking period to allow students to complete school work during spring break and submit it for a grade,” León said in a letter to families. “Although we did not change our grading policy beyond this extension, we must be flexible during these trying times.”

The district has not said what that flexibility might look like.

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