In the darkest days of the pandemic, some saw the dawn of a new beginning. When the virus was conquered, they argued, educators should never return to the traditional “chalk and talk” method of classroom teaching. Instead, they should use the overnight transition to remote learning, and the heroic effort to deliver laptops and devices to 231,000 students who needed them in New Jersey, to give birth to an exciting new way of educating students.

The possibilities of a new era of technology were explored in an Oct. 23, 2020 NJSBA special report, “Reopening Schools: Online Learning and the Digital Divide,” available here.

“The question facing educators now is will they embrace some of the discoveries they made during the move to online learning,” the report asked, and “can they learn from the crisis and use technology to improve the way they teach kids?” The report suggested that districts should “embrace the digital revolution that is already here.”

Now, some nine months later, in some of the state’s most disadvantaged districts, educators on the front lines are sounding a cautionary note. Technology can play an important role, they say, but the dawn of a new era may be delayed by more practical concerns.

In recent interviews with School Leader, New Jersey school superintendents and other educators asked important questions. how many of the 231,000 devices distributed to schoolchildren in the past year will be in working order this time next year? If technology is incorporated into the curriculum, how will districts be able to sustain the new technology when devices need to be replaced in three to five years?

Assessing How the Pandemic Affected Disadvantaged Districts  On Dec. 6, 2020, the Washington Post, citing national studies, showed that students in disadvantaged districts were especially hard-hit by the pandemic.

“After the U.S. education system fractured into Zoom screens last spring, experts feared millions of children would fall behind. Hard evidence now shows they were right,” the Post said. “Most of the research concludes students of color and those in high-poverty communities fell further behind their peers, exacerbating long-standing gaps in American education.”

The Post cited a study by McKinsey & Co. titled, “COVID-19 and Learning Loss — Disparities Grow and Students Need Help.” The study estimated that the shift to remote school in the spring set white students back by one to three months in math, while students of color lost three to five months.

On June 2, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) released preliminary data showing that Black and Hispanic students were struggling academically after a year of remote, or partially remote, instruction caused by the pandemic. The data showed that 56% of Black students who participated in the assessment were doing mathematics “below grade level,” while 52% of the Hispanic students were not doing work at grade level. The number of white students below grade level was 28%. The numbers for English Language Arts were similar. Fifty-one percent of Black students were below grade level, as were 52% of Hispanics and 27% of white students.

Others said that it was new data, and that it wasn’t comparable to other data the state had collected in previous years. The assessment of what was “at grade level” was new, the NJDOE cautioned. A June 2 broadcast memo from the NJDOE told districts not to overreact.

“The Department would discourage comparisons between the interim assessment data described above and data regarding student performance on previous administrations of the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment or other statewide assessments,” said Dr. Lisa Gleason, assistant commissioner of academics and performance. “Statewide assessments serve a different purpose, and are administered under different conditions than local interim assessments,” she added in the broadcast memo. “Comparisons between these data sets would not yield meaningful takeaways regarding trends in student learning over time.”

New Jersey is not alone in struggling to assess preliminary data and deciding how technology can be used to help students recover. In a March 29, 2021 article in the Harvard Gazette, education school dean Bridget Long discussed how schools will find a fragmented student body when in-person instruction resumes in the fall.

“One of the difficulties is that the experience has differed tremendously. For some students, their parents have been able to supplement or their schools have been able to react. The hope is that they will not lose much learning time, while other students effectively haven’t been in school for almost a year; they have lost quite a bit of ground,” Long said. “As a teacher, you can imagine your students come back to school, and all of a sudden, students of the same chronological age are actually in very different places, depending on their individual family situation and what accommodations were able to be made.”

To assess the challenges facing disadvantaged districts in New Jersey, School Leader interviewed superintendents in three very different districts:

In Beverly, Burlington County, Superintendent Elizabeth Giacobbe discussed her deeply personal commitment to serving disadvantaged children. She believes strongly in technology — and invested in it years ago when she and a talented team of teachers transformed her school from a place where students chronically underperformed to a center of achievement recognized in 2017 by the federal government as a National Title I Distinguished School. But she believes that technology can only work as a supplement to, and not a replacement for, daily in-person instruction.

In Wildwood, Cape May County, Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings believes that a “bricks and mortar” school building, offering a safe haven for troubled children, is an essential element of any disadvantaged child’s education. Budget worries are tempering his view of the future. He wants to be sure that any program he starts, any new position he creates, can be sustained when the currently-available federal and state funds are gone in a few years.

In Paterson, Passaic County, Superintendent Eileen Shafer is deeply grateful to the state and federal government for providing her district with 14,000 laptops days before the current school year started. But, she wonders, is the infusion of technology sustainable? Given the history of her district, what will the budget look like in three to five years when the laptops need to be replaced?

In Beverly, Technology Is Tempered with a Personal Touch

Somehow, when he was only two months old, Matthew’s will to live was so strong that his screaming, crying voice drifted outside the walls of a known drug house in a Monmouth County beach town. A passerby heard the desperate screams and called police, who discovered Matthew sitting alone on a couch, neglected and covered in filth.

His diapers were changed and he was placed in foster care. Twelve months later, Beverly Superintendent Elizabeth Giacobbe won permission to adopt him. Now, Matthew is five years old, and his smiling pictures hang on the wall in Giacobbe’s busy office, a constant reminder of why she comes to work every day.

She lives across the state, but when the school in her hometown decided to go with 100% virtual learning, even for the youngest children, she put her son in the car and took him with her. She enrolled him in the tiny, 350-student K-8 district she leads in impoverished Beverly in Burlington County. She wanted Matthew to be taught in-person, to enjoy the same privileges other Beverly children are offered.

Beverly is one of the few school districts in New Jersey that remained open for in-person instruction for every day during this academic year, largely because Giacobbe is a firm believer that computer-based instruction can supplement, but never replace, in-person learning.

Each day during the pandemic, she took great pride in keeping the school open, seeing the faces of the disadvantaged students in her district.

“I just feel better knowing that we’re able to feed them, to love them and to teach them,” she said. During the recently concluded academic year, she worried about the 75 to 80 students who every day chose to stay away from school but often failed to log into their online classes. About 22% of her students stayed virtual, a number which is a little lower than the national figures for students in urban areas.

“Those are the ones that keep me up at night,” she said. “We’re losing them. We can’t check on how they’re doing, academically, socially and emotionally, and that’s what’s scary.”

Giacobbe believes in technology. Her district was recognized by the New Jersey State Board of Education for being a “Light-house” district, in part because her talented teaching staff vastly improved student achievement in a short period of time. She invested in technology. When the pandemic began, each student had a laptop or device to access the internet.

Because of COVID cases during the academic year, four classes had to switch to 100% remote learning for two weeks, due to quarantine requirements. Other than those brief interruptions, classes have been offered 100% in person.

Looking toward the fall, Giacobbe said she plans to use technology to quickly assess students’ learning deficiencies. Computers can also help students conduct research and learn about the world.

Spending $1.2 Million from the American Rescue Plan When Beverly spends the $1.2 million it will receive from the American Rescue Plan, the money will not go into hiring new teachers, or finding more ways to integrate technology into the curriculum. The money will buy three trailers, with two classrooms in each one. The six additional classrooms will relieve overcrowding and permanently improve education in Beverly, even when the windfall of funding created by the response to the pandemic is gone.

Giacobbe said she feels that schools are an important safe haven, and that providing a place where students can feel secure is the first important step towards creating a safe environment for learning.

“I was talking to my dad the other day,” Giacobbe said, “and he shared a quote with me from Aristotle, that the education of the mind, but not the heart, is not a true education. And I think that, especially when you’re dealing with students in a low socioeconomic area, we have to protect these children’s hearts, first and foremost.

“When they have that loving bond and connection with their educators, as well as with one another in the classroom, that’s when the real learning can take place,” she said. “I don’t think it can be replaced with just another website, with another screen in front of their face. It’s that human connection which ensures that children can learn.”

In Wildwood, Teachers Help Students Overcome Poverty and ‘Find Joy in the World’

If you ask him, Wildwood Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings will acknowledge that 50% of the 850 resident students in his Wildwood, Cape May County K-12 school district live in poverty — one of the highest poverty rates in New Jersey.

He’ll acknowledge that when the pandemic hit, many of his students didn’t have computers. He’ll say he is concerned that pre-school enrollment dropped 30% this year, losing enough students to close an entire section.

But given a chance to speak further, his natural optimism comes through. The preschool enrollment numbers are starting to come back up, he says. All of his students have electronic devices now, and his teachers — some of whom struggled to send an email with an attachment when the pandemic began — now are “absolute rock stars” using Google Classroom and other internet platforms.

He speaks about his students with admiration.

“I believe our students are more resilient,” he said in an interview with School Leader. “If you want to talk about grit, our children are born with grit here. They navigate situations that would cripple a lot of adults that I know. They do that, and they’re still happy, they still look for the joy in the world.”

Looking toward the fall, he plans to use the same formula that helped the school district open successfully for hybrid instruction last year.

“The success of our restart plan was that we really tried to involve every stakeholder that we could identify. We had parents involved. We had grandparents involved, teachers, paraprofessionals, our school nurses, our school physician,” he said. “We had our school board members and a board committee. We had an exhausting number of meetings to make sure that we got it as right as possible.

“And we’ll have a similar dialogue going into the fall when we plan for the opening in September, which will include the use of technology,” he added.

There will be challenges when the new academic year starts, many of them unrelated to the pandemic. More than 70% of his resident students in the K-12 district are Hispanic or Black, many of them lacking literacy skills. Student mobility is an issue, with families coming and going throughout the year.

He is proud of his staff for learning how to reach the district’s large population of transient students, to find out where they are, academically, whenever they enter school during the year. For that same reason, he is confident that they will develop a strategy to reach students who will return to school having had vastly different experiences with online learning.

“We’re constantly assessing where kids are and benchmarking them,” he said. “Our teachers are black-belt interventionists, meeting the kids where they are,” he said, developing academic plans to address students’ unique needs and learning deficits.

The pandemic hurt his students because they weren’t in school, “which is full of safety nets, and protections, and people looking out for all of the little nuances that mean students may be experiencing some trouble in their lives,” he said. “We had a lot of students that I really wish were within our buildings during this time.”

Some students may have had a quiet place to study at home. Many did not. Some had parents who understood computers, many didn’t.

In the fall, Kummings said, teachers will be faced with assessing the achievement levels for the students who had a fragmented learning experience. In a way, Wildwood is uniquely prepared to meet this challenge because of its high transient rate. His “black belt interventionists” have had great training in creating learning plans for students with greatly different needs.

In the fall, Wildwood will most likely use the $4.2 million it is receiving from the federal “American Rescue Plan” to repair its deteriorating buildings, including a high school that is more than 100 years old.

That doesn’t mean that technology won’t continue to improve the delivery of education in Wildwood, he said.

“We’ve had this baptism by fire in the utilization of technology,” Kummings said. “I think we’re going to have a residual effect, a positive one.”

For 28,000-Student Paterson, a Difficult Past, a Well-Funded Present, and an Uncertain but Hopeful Future

To understand how technology can benefit Paterson’s students in the future, it helps to understand its turbulent past.

Superintendent Eileen Shafer, in an interview with School Leader, explained the enormous challenge administrators, teachers, parents and students faced when schools were closed and the district was unprepared to offer virtual education to its students.

Four Years Ago “When I became superintendent four years ago, I put together a plan that we would phase in over the next three years to have every student in the district have a Chromebook,” she said. In the first year of the plan, Chromebooks were delivered to most high school students.

In the second year of the plan, Chromebooks were to be purchased for the middle and some elementary school students.

“But the money wasn’t there,” she said.

So when Gov. Murphy closed schools in March of 2020, more than 14,000 of Paterson’s 28,000 students didn’t have laptops. Instead of online lessons, they were asked to fill out paper packets. Boxes of completed paper packets filled the central office building’s enormous cafeteria, and teachers had to go through the packets, evaluate the students’ work, and enter grades into spreadsheets.

It was a nightmare, Shafer said.

The Immediate Past  Shafer said she is “very grateful” that the state and federal government provided the money to purchase laptops for every student. But production problems in China, she said — including an apparent violation of child labor laws — prevented laptops from being delivered. She told her staff that the situation was unacceptable. New suppliers were found. And by the end of last summer, only days before the school year was to begin, the laptops were delivered.

Teacher volunteers, administrators, principals — every available person, prepared the laptops for distribution to the public. Long lines of parents and students stood in the hot sun to pick up the laptops. And finally, online learning began.

The Current Situation  With laptops delivered at the last minute, learning how to use them occurred on the fly. When school first opened, Shafer said, teachers taught students until 1 p.m. each day. After that, for 90 minutes each day, teachers received training on how to successfully incorporate the computers into classroom teaching.

A 24-hour hotline was established to answer questions. Parents were offered training on how to help their students work online. Calls for help were logged and analyzed to help the district assess its situation.

“Kids in high school and middle school were a whiz on the devices,” Shafer said. The problem, she said, was in reaching children in the youngest grades and their parents.

Looking Toward September Given the tumultuous year just past, the district is considering the overall welfare of the children as it looks to the future. Students re-entered the Paterson schools for the first time in early June. The first order of business won’t be to test students and grill them on what they know, Shafer said.

“I think we’re going to have some conversation with kids,” Shafer said on June 3, shortly before schools reopened. She said she knew that some children had experienced crushing losses during the pandemic.

“One boy, in particular, lost both parents to the pandemic. That’s a very traumatic experience, especially for an eighth-grader,” she said. “We have other children who lost grandparents and relatives.”

As the district considers the successes and challenges it faced during the past year, she said the district has discovered that online assessment tools can help determine a student’s academic needs in an immediate and precise way. She said some teachers have taken their children on exciting and lifelike online field trips to foreign countries.

She said she appreciates that the federal and state pandemic relief funds made it possible for her 28,000 students to get the devices they needed.

“It’s been a silver lining, really,” she said. “If the pandemic didn’t happen, our children would not all have devices, I can tell you that.”

But now that the pandemic is fading, and the laptops have already been distributed, how will the district be able to continue to meet the technology needs in the future?

Comcast, for example, has provided “hot spots,” granting internet access to poor families for $1 a month. How long will the cable company continue to provide that discount? How many laptops will need to be replaced?

The district has what it needs now, she said.

“But no one,” she said, referring to three to five years in the future, “is really sure what’s going to happen after that.”

Alan Guenther is the assistant editor for the New Jersey School Boards Association.