By ERIN ROLL
Montclair students, instead of being in classrooms at school on Monday morning, were seated at their kitchen tables with worksheets and computers.
Their teachers were speaking to them via webcam, or via a messaging system.
Monday, March 16, marked the first day of a new normal for students who are now getting their classroom instruction at home, as the state has ordered the closure of all public and private schools to help stem the COVID-19 outbreak.
Gov. Phil Murphy addressed students at a COVID-19 debriefing announcing all New Jersey schools would close by March 18: “This isn’t just one big spring break here. There’s a big dose of remote learning to adhere to.”
All of Montclair’s public, private and parochial schools are closed.
The Montclair public schools’ technology department distributed 350 Chromebooks to students on Monday from a distribution point at Hillside, interim Superintendent Nathan Parker said. He added that the district had received numerous emails from parents saying that the virtual learning was going well for their children, and thanking the district for their work on making the needed arrangements.
The district also worked with its food service vendor to have lunches ready to distribute to families who needed them. Parker said 500 lunches were prepared to give out on Monday, and 50 people showed up to request lunches.
Andreina Botto Roever, who works at the United Nations, has three children, ages 12, 10 and 7, who attend Glenfield and Northeast. She and her husband set up a system in which the family and older children help teach each other. The parents also teach the children in German and Spanish. Their schedule includes regular 15-minute breaks in the garden.
“There is a positive aspect of family bonding in this difficult time and I am taking it one day at a time,” Botto Roever said. The girls also video chat with their grandmother in Uruguay, and one of the daughters has an online pen pal that she corresponds with.
On social media, however, some parents have already reported being overwhelmed on the first day, with one parent having to put work conference calls on hold in order to help children with math homework.
Another parent, Colleen Daly Martinez, said the family had to order a second laptop to use at home. Currently, she and her daughter Cecilia, an eighth grader at Glenfield Middle School, are alternating use of the family’s computer. When her daughter is on the computer, Martinez says she spends that time reading books or doing work that does not require the use of a computer.
The family is fortunate that they have the means to get a second computer, Martinez said, but she is well aware that many families in Montclair are not as fortunate.
Laptop Upcycle, which refurbishes laptops and distributes them to students who are in financial need, announced that they will have laptops and free wifi hotspots available for students who need them.
“We have been in communication with our contacts in each of the middle schools and Montclair High School to inform them that we are prepared to distribute laptops and/or free wifi to students who qualify.” Families are asked to reach out to their school’s counselors to arrange for laptops and hotspots.
Laptop Upcycle founder Jon Bonesteel said the group gave out 10 laptops on Monday, including one to a student from a family of refugees being assisted in Montclair.
“We have excellent stock still and thanks to a recent grant, we also have plenty of free wifi for qualifying families,” Bonesteel said.
Some parents said they gained a huge respect for teachers that deal with up to 25 students at time. Pia Kutten, who has two fifth-graders and a second-grader, said that while the fifth-graders did well with concentrating on their work, it was more of a challenge with the second-grader. “It’s going to be a struggle and I have gained enormous respect for my kid’s teachers after this morning,” she said.
For the Liu family, which includes two university professors, a Montclair High School student, a Harvard student and a middle school teacher in Connecticut, the COVID-19 outbreak has affected them on multiple levels. University classes have been disrupted, campuses closed, and local cases of COVID-19 have been reported.
Charles Liu is an associate professor of astrophysics at CUNY’s Staten Island campus, which has now switched to remote learning. His wife, Amy Rabb-Liu, teaches mathematics at Drew University. On Monday, Rabb-Liu had her first experience with hosting a Zoom meeting with her students, which she said went well.
“This isn’t going to be some five-week spring break, I hope,” Rabb-Liu said. She added that the family is very grateful to the Montclair school staff for all the work they have done. “I know they are dealing with whatever is going on with their [own] families.”
“On the one hand, it feels so different from the traditional being in the classroom and seeing everyone,” says Charles Liu. But conversely, he said, online learning allows a certain degree of flexibility, and allows teachers and instructors to be able to spend more time working one-to-one with students. He also said that virtual learning requires educators to think about the process of teaching. “What, in the age of the Internet, are we teaching these students, and how do we teach it effectively?”
Charles Liu has also received his certification to substitute teach physics to students at Montclair High School, and he spent part of Monday checking in with the students in the physics section that he will be teaching, in partnership with a regular staff member at Montclair High School.
His son, Isaac, a junior at Montclair High School, said the first day went alright, with a lot of it involving getting Google meets set up and the teachers setting down first-day rules.
Isaac’s classes for the day were physics, biology, history, math and band. For band class, in which he plays trombone, the instructor required each student to play their instrument along to a rehearsal track, make a recording of their playing, and send it in for grading.
Some teachers held lectures online, while others put handouts online and told them to be due by a certain date and time. “I feel like the knowledge dissemination is a little harder,” he said, since the classes are not meeting face-to-face. It also presents a challenge for science classes that require labs.
However, he said, being able to sleep in and head straight for the computer was a nice bonus.
Some of the other students said their classes had trouble with issues like the teacher’s webcam not working properly, he said.
Nina Lorusso, a dance teacher at Renaissance Middle School, said Monday she was working out how to teach lessons to her students virtually.
Early childhood facilities like the Montclair Child Development Center and the Montclair Community Pre-K are also using Google Classroom. The Montclair Community Pre-K also posted a list of online resources that parents can use on their website.
The Montclair Board of Education went ahead with a meeting that was scheduled for Monday. However, only Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea and board member Priscilla Church were physically present at the George Inness Annex. The other board members, as well as Parker, participated in the meeting via conference call.
The meeting went ahead because the board needed to approve the preliminary 2020-2021 budget, so it could be handed off to the Board of School Estimate within the legal timeframe set by the county, Board President Eve Robinson said. Robinson emphasized that the budget process is not over, but is only just beginning, and that the public will be given opportunities to give input on the budget.
Board of Education Vice President Latifah Jannah said her grandsons had their first day of online learning that day. “And it went really well, they were engaged, they had a little break to run around outside, which was necessary.”
“It really is a challenging time,” Church said. “The level of thought and work that went into this… this to me is state of the art.”