Despite Historic Challenges Posed by COVID-19, Public Charter Schools Across NJ Are Adapting to Students’ Needs and Developing New Best Practices for Instruction
Successful Innovations Can Help Support Students, Families, and Educators Everywhere
(TRENTON) – As millions of children across the nation continue to be engaged in remote learning because of COVID-19, public charter schools across New Jersey today released new best practices that have helped them support students during the pandemic – ones
that will likely remain in their pedagogical toolkits in perpetuity long after the virus is a thing of the past. As the pandemic struck New Jersey last March and schools closed their doors, New Jersey public charter schools quickly adapted to continue high-quality instruction and support for students in a tumultuous time. Through that experience of navigating unforeseen challenges, they gleaned a variety of best practices – ones they are now sharing to help inform instruction in the weeks and months ahead.
“What the pandemic has highlighted more than anything is the need for schools to be versatile and flexible in order to meet students’ needs. Through this unprecedented time with so much hardship, we’ve identified new innovations that will be utilized in our schools for years to come. As the pandemic has shown, we all have to come together to support children, and we have to constantly work to improve to meet students’ individual needs” said Dr. Joseph Conway, Superintendent of Camden's Charter School Network.
“We are proud to have embraced and championed digital learning well before the pandemic, but we have used what has been a difficult year for everyone to continue adapting to meet the needs of our students. The pandemic has highlighted the need for all schools to be versatile and flexible and the lessons we have learned will stay with us far beyond this past year,” said Mr. Nihat Guvercin, CEO, iLearn Schools.
“Throughout the past year, the ability of charter schools to be nimble and creative has allowed us to be responsive to our students in meaningful ways - to innovate as we addressed unique challenges, adapt our practices to evolving needs and adjust over the course of the year. Now we are able to evaluate which practices we initiated in response to the pandemic should be maintained moving forward,” said Jen Sargent, Executive Director of Hoboken Dual Language Charter School. “For example, we will continue to use technology to enhance instruction and engagement, as well as to increase accessibility for parents by holding IEP meetings and other parent conferences virtually. We are also proud to have maintained a holistic view of student well-being and success, including ensuring we are supporting families who have been most vulnerable during the past year by offering a Supervised Remote Learning program, which allows low-income students, children of essential workers, and students with special needs to come to school in person five full days per week, even when the rest of their grade was remote. This has allowed us to provide wrap-around support to those students who need it most.”
CLOSING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE AND THE FUTURE OF LEARNING
When the pandemic struck, it spotlighted a gaping, long-standing digital divide across New Jersey. Yet, Governor Murphy recently announced that the number of students statewide lacking a device or internet connectivity is zero. That presents a game-changing opportunity to utilize those tools to enhance academic instruction when all students return to classrooms permanently.
Over the course of the pandemic, teachers have reinvented their lessons with an array of online resources – from virtual field trips to new immersive apps – to enhance students’ learning experiences. Looking ahead, devices and cloud technology will make learning easier and more accessible even when in-person learning returns. Students will have access to learning tools 24/7, giving schools an opportunity to truly embrace virtual field trips, experiences, and resources in an unprecedented way.
Further, now that the digital divide has been closed and public charter schools and district schools have virtual instruction in their toolkits, schools have the ability to rethink their schedules and approaches. When full-time in-person learning eventually returns, students may no longer have to miss a full instructional day just because they’re sick. The ability to deliver remote instruction is also spurring schools to rethink how they deliver summer programming to those in summer school.
MEETING STUDENTS WHERE THEY ARE AND INDIVIDUALIZING LEARNING
Over the past year, teachers and schools were forced to demonstrate exceptional flexibility to meet students’ individual needs. Some public charter schools went door-to-door handing out assignments and learning tools; others engaged with their students over the phone, after school hours, and on mediums and at times that met their individual needs. The pandemic has illustrated the importance of always supporting students where they are outside of the classroom in order to adapt to their individual circumstances. Just as instruction cannot be one-size-fits-all, neither can the medium or time at which it’s delivered.
SOCIAL SERVICES AND SUPPORTS
The COVID-19 crisis has shown the world what all educators have always known: schools do far more than just educate children. Social services and supports are critical, and during the pandemic, just as so many schools conducted an inventory of families’ technological needs, they also regularly gauged each family’s circumstances. An estimated one in five children in New Jersey lives in poverty, and an estimated two million people are food insecure. Regular check-ins with families during the pandemic have often given schools a new and unique insight into each family’s circumstances and needs, forging a closer relationship with families. That closer relationship must continue in the years ahead in order to personalize instruction and provide support for each individual child.
IMPROVING INSTRUCTIONAL FEEDBACK
One unexpected benefit to virtual classes is that they have allowed instructional coaches to seamlessly dip in and out of online classrooms. That enables instructional coaches and master teachers to witness more lessons, more frequently. Teachers can get feedback electronically and in real-time, improving instruction almost immediately. The pandemic in some ways has actually improved the feedback loop for educators, because teacher observations should always be growth-oriented in order to nurture both long-term instructional success and a healthy school culture, both virtually and in-person.
Families everywhere have faced incredible hardships, and the pandemic has shown how schools are truly the anchors of the communities they serve. COVID-19 has put a new spotlight on the need for students, teachers, and families to always feel a bond within that community. Virtual educational events – family trivia nights, movie nights, and more – can offer academic benefits while simultaneously bringing a school community closer together at a time when families need it most. Celebrating special events and encouraging academic curiosity connects school communities, increases attendance, and motivates students to continue learning.
DOUBLING DOWN ON ARTS AND MUSIC
The arts have taken on added importance during the pandemic, giving children an outlet to channel their complex emotions and express their creativity with peers during a challenging time. Remote dance and music classes have given students an opportunity to get exercise while breaking up the virtual school day. Arts, dance, music, and more have always been critical to enrich students, and going forward in a post-pandemic world, all schools should redouble their commitment to the arts.