NJSBA’s COVID-19 survey, emailed to members and included in last week’s online School Board Notes, garnered a robust response, and indicated that the state’s school districts are working hard to meet the challenges of educating students remotely while boards of education diligently oversee that process.

The survey asked respondents to name the top three challenges their district was facing. There were common threads in the answers.

A primary concern is how well-equipped students are to participate in the ongoing virtual learning, particularly throughout an extended school shutdown.  Many students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged families, may not have access to the proper technology and WiFi access for remote learning, said several respondents.

Some parents and families also may not be able to provide the optimal degree of adult supervision over the at-home learning process, particularly with elementary-school-aged children.  “Parents’ capacity to guide students through work while themselves working from home is causing strain on families and home/school relationships,” said one reply.  Another noted the high number of parents who would be deemed “essential” employees at their workplace and may not be home.

The concern is especially acute for special education students.  Many survey respondents cited the difficulty of meeting the needs of students with an IEP or 504 plan.   “Services for certain disabled students are difficult to provide,” said one person. “There is an inability to provide physical occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech services.”

Food Distribution Difficulties   Distributing food to students who are eligible for free- and reduced-price meals has been a challenge for many districts.  “Our district’s biggest challenge has been providing free and reduced lunches to students daily,” said one respondent. “This is due to parents not picking up, and issues with the contracted food service provider. We adjusted our plan and are now delivering food daily to each home/apartment to ensure that they receive their lunch.”  Another response indicated a concern about “staffing the building for the distribution of food while being cognizant of the fact that you don’t want a lot of people in there.”

On a human level, several respondents expressed concern about the lack of social interaction between children, as well as the stress on families, teachers and school staff.  “Students are undeniably missing vital instruction and intervention from their teachers despite our best efforts,” said one respondent.

What’s Working   The survey also asked members to say what was working well in their districts during the pandemic shutdown.  Several respondents discussed the effectiveness of using products such as Zoom, Google Meets and Google Classroom Suite of Tools, Study Island, Classroom Dojo, Blackboard Connect, and other multimedia platforms, while others were appreciative of the advance planning for such a possibility that district administrators had done. Among the other practices shared:

  • Some teachers have been live streaming and recording classes, and students seem to really enjoy this. They feel a connection to the class and to the teacher even though they are at home learning.
  • Our BOE ran our regular meeting last week; we streamed online and the public was able to phone in or email in questions and comments.
  • We have “Flex Fridays.” No new work is assigned on Fridays and it is a day to get help, meet up with the teacher or class online and allow teachers to have a common planning time together.
  • We created a Home Instruction Task Force comprised of board members, parents, teachers and administrators to solicit information on how to best meet the needs of students and their families.
  • Our CSA has done daily morning and evening Facebook Live sessions to answer questions from parents.
  • We have daily dance parties at 2 p.m. that all families are encouraged to participate in.
  • We loaned out Chromebooks to any student who needs one, with a waiver for parents to sign.
  • Board leadership was included in the planning process and continued to be included in the daily updated meetings. This makes it easier to be able to speak to what is happening in schools when asked by the community.
  • The principal sends out the daily “Morning Announcements” which include the Pledge of Allegiance, and short videos of teachers and students engaged in home activities like playing with pets or cooking.
  • We use several ways to communicate, and I believe with that combination we have been successful and transparent in communicating. I do a daily robo-call, reminding students of assignments and giving updates, followed by a robo-text, website updates, a number to call, a district email and social media to share pictures of families working and playing at home (from a pre-K-6 elementary district superintendent).

One question in the survey asked what questions board members had for NJSBA. The Association has posted some answers to common questions at the NJSBA COVID-19 webpage and will continue to add to the list as our experts research the topics in question.

NJSBA will also continue to share best practices from the survey, which will be left open for responses indefinitely.

Two comments in survey responses summed up the sentiment of many education stakeholders in New Jersey: “We miss our kids,” and “I wish I knew when we could go back!”