Pupils Keep Learning with Tech Tools

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DENNISVILLE – Before schools closed March 17, teachers in Dennis Township and throughout the state were told to prepare two weeks’ worth of assignments to send home with students.

That two weeks ended March 30, while Gov. Phil Murphy does not plan to even consider reopening schools until April 17 at the earliest. In the meantime, educators search for new ways to keep youngsters learning.

Kevin Poltorak, a seventh and eighth-grade science teacher, in Dennis Township, described himself as a hands-on kind of teacher. He tries to give his students assignments where they can see real results, using outdoor gardens and classroom planters to demonstrate principles of biology.

“We can’t do that now,” he said.

On March 16, Murphy signed Executive Order No. 104, a sweeping measure aimed at keeping the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus from moving through the state population at an exponential rate.

The order closed schools, along with casinos, fitness centers, theaters, and most other businesses and public places where people gather.

Even with these extraordinary steps to increase social distance, the number of confirmed cases continued to climb sharply throughout the state, with 13,386 people testing positive by March 29, and 161 deaths attributed to the disease. There have been 15 cases reported in Cape May County.

“In order to slow the spread of COVID-19, we must take aggressive and direct social distancing action to curtail non-essential activities in the state,” Murphy said. “Our paramount priority is to ‘flatten the curve’ of new cases, so we do not overwhelm our health care system and overload our health care professionals who are on the frontlines of the response.”

As part of the extraordinary steps taken, Murphy ordered the commissioner of education to work with public and private schools to allow education to continue through home instruction.

With thousands of schools in 584 school districts, as well as charter schools, parochial schools, and more than a million students, the order has had an enormous impact.

“We see there isn’t a one-size-fits all approach. Rather, the people in the school districts know their communities, and they are in the best position to determine what works best for their students,” said Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education. “Some schools are offering online learning, some are offering paper-based instruction, some provide pre-loaded laptops with lessons, and some are using old-fashioned textbooks. We’re also seeing districts offer students a choice for what works best for them – paper or electronic.”

In Dennis Township, as in districts throughout Cape May County, teachers are relying on technology to stay connected to students.

In a phone interview March 27, Poltorak praised his district’s administration and staff, saying they worked hard preparing teachers and students for the closure and continue to work to keep students engaged and learning.

Before the closure, the school director of technology John Murphy spent the weekend creating accounts on the online system Edio and making sure teachers knew how to operate it.

On the district website at dtschools.org, each teacher has a page with a link to e-learning assignments. There, teachers can post videos and PDFs, as well as links and videos. They can also set up sessions with students through some of the available platforms, such as Google Classroom or Zoom.

“We tried to keep it the same for all of the teachers,” he said.

Before the closure, staff members polled students to make sure they had internet access. Students could sign out school laptops in advance, he said, and those that need them can still pick up hard copies of assignments at their schools under the current social distance guidelines, or have assignments mailed to their homes.

Teachers are beginning to have real-time sessions with students through some of the meeting programs. There, students can ask questions, interact with the teachers and with each other, he said.

“It’s been tough on the kids. They’re just happy to see our faces and to see each other’s faces,” Poltorak said. District staff tries to keep a sense of normal in frightening times.

Principal Jamie VanArtsdalen has stayed in close contact with teachers, keeping them in the loop, while teachers meet remotely on a regular basis.

Assistant Principal Monica DiVito continues to work on professional development for the staff and call students on their birthdays. The special events, like “messy hair day,” still happen from home and the school still honors students through its “Hawks of the Month” program, calling attention to students who embody particular values.

“Only instead of having a big assembly, we do a video clip and post it on the website,” he said.

Similar efforts continue in the other schools in the district, and throughout the county and around the state.

According to Yaple at the Department of Education, local internet service providers are offering hot spots for students, while Poltorak said many educational services have waived sign-up fees or otherwise increased accessibility during the crisis.

Poltorak managed to include a way for his students to get some hands-on learning. As part of his assignments sent home with students on March 16, he sent each student home with some pea seeds and a cup of soil.

“That was their first assignment, to plant the pea and observe its growth,” he said.

He has also posted a number of optional assignments with experiments students can do at home with their families, which include classics like baking soda volcanoes to creating a battery from a potato.

He asked students to email him photos that can be shared with the rest of the class. 

Cape May County’s acting superintendent of schools, Judith DeStefano-Anen, did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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