Covid-19 And Schools: One Story From New Jersey

Mike Piscal is founder of College Achieve Public Schools in New Jersey. We were talking about the challenges they are facing pivoting to this new situation with Covid-19 and I asked him to jot down what he was sharing. He’s a published poet and writer so not surprisingly I had an interesting story in my inbox a few hours later. Here’s one school story about the changes this week has brought:

Are Schools Closed for the Duration or Open for Learning, Which is It?

By Mike Piscal

A week ago, we thought we were probably going to have to close our schools for a couple of weeks.  We started to plan.  Our network – College Achieve Public Schools (CAPS) – operates seven charter schools on six campuses in Paterson, Plainfield, North Plainfield, Neptune, and Asbury Park, NJ. We serve over 2,200 students — the vast majority of whom are Black and Hispanic, and we have over 200 hardworking teachers and staff.  Depending on which campus, we serve free breakfast and lunch to 67% to 95% of our students each day.

There was more than a little bit of concern and fear as school leaders wondered whose call it was to decide if we could close our schools?  Do we wait for a student or faculty member to have a positive test for the Coronavirus?  But if there is a delay in receiving results, what then? Students and teachers were exhibiting cold and flu symptoms, and who can tell if it’s COVID 19? And again the question, whose call is it to make?  Is this just like a snow day or is the President going to say something? The governor? The mayor? Our school boards? The Health Department?  The question marks rang in our heads like nervous church bells, because we feared someone would make the call before we were ready or after it was too late.

In the end, we were told to do what we thought best, and the leaders at the top would support us.  The Governor and other public officials were weighing the necessity to close down other open public spaces and venues, and gave us the freedom to make the call if we were ready. We knew the Governor was weighing as we were what to do with the students who were homeless, who relied on our twice a day meals for food security, and the new question – could school districts pivot on a dime, and shift from learning in the classroom to learning online?  How do we reinvent our delivery system in a week or less?  Short answer, we don’t. Any way that was Friday.  On Monday, Governor Murphy announced all public and private schools would close the next day.

Seems bad, and maybe it was all of six days ago, but from my perspective where we were then compared to where we are today is astonishing.  Our Executive Directors leapt into planning – immediately sending out surveys via Class Dojo – an app every parent has on their phone – to all of our families to gauge who would need internet access at home and who would rely on our breakfast and lunch program. Our schools in Plainfield– serving well over a thousand students– closed on Friday so teachers could develop 15 online lesson plans. Our schools in Asbury Park and Neptune stayed open on Friday, as they serve only 300 students, but somehow not only got their online lesson plans done, but figured out how to get chrome books and hotspots for every student that needed one and set up a delivery system for free breakfast and lunch for our students with food security challenges.  Paterson did the same and shared their extra hotspots with Plainfield.  Not only were resources shared, but quick fixes for parents struggling with how to use the hotspots and access their child’s account on the chrome books were developed in Plainfield and shared across our network in real time.

We have at one of our schools a high percentage of homeless students who rely greatly on our schools as a safe haven and a place to get two meals a day. Yesterday, we sent out our staff to find these students without a steady home and offer them breakfast and lunch and to check on our students in public housing.  We brought an abundance and ended up with extra meals –  so our staff offered residents the extra 40 meals we had.  I don’t know if we broke any rules here, but we fed some people who were grateful, and we built a stronger and more caring community in the process.  We need to be kind to each other and help each other out in this time of need.  So far, I see people stepping up all over and sharing what they have.

Across the College Achieve network, we have distributed nearly 600 chrome books and hotspots for those families without internet access at home.  Most of our curriculums have online platforms such as Reading Wonders and other off the shelf programs.  We are looking closely at Khan Academy, and are already using Google Classrooms to deliver our own curriculum.  So when I said you can’t switch from classroom learning to online learning in six days maybe I was wrong. If it seems miraculous that we can deliver anything that is so well thought out in so short a span of time, it is only because of the enormous strides that have been made in the last twenty years by people like Sal Khan, and the innovators at Google, Audible, and so many other online learning platforms.  It will never replace the teacher in the classroom, but like or not, we are now offering our students a virtual online education.  We are building feedback loops for students, parents, teachers, and staff so we can constantly refine and improve our delivery.

We are also reaching out and learning from colleagues at Success Academy and Bellwether.  Success Academy advised us to keep it simple.  Encourage our students to read lots of books (remember books?) and for teachers to call each student twice a day for 5-7 minutes to discuss how they are doing in this brave new online world.  By the way, on most of these platforms, we can see how much time our students are spending online, how many questions they answer correctly, problems they solve, and short essays they write.  It is wonderful to have this data, but Success is right.  It is even more important that our teachers speak with our students twice a day for a few minutes. The human interaction is vital.  We believe now that we will succeed online more than most online platforms have done to date because these phone calls between teacher and student leverage (and even strengthen) the relationships that were built face to face in the classroom since September.  If we started the year online, I would not be so optimistic.  Without the prior relationships, the teacher would be just a voice on the computer.

Twenty years ago this pivot to distance learning would not have been possible. Ten years ago only the affluent would have been able to pull this off.  At one of our elementary schools, of our 400 students only 13 students have been unresponsive.  Tomorrow, day four of our school closure, we are going out to the homes of those 13 students to make sure they have internet access, food, and to let them know we care about them.

Guestblogger Mike Piscal is founder of College Achieve Public Schools