Erica Hartman is the Director of Technology Integration for Morris School District in Morristown, New Jersey, home to 5,200 students, 34% of whom receive free or reduced lunch. The district is currently operating in hybrid mode, with a combination of face-to-face and remote learning.
Tools being used
Clever, Canvas, Google Meet, Google Classroom, iReady, Flipgrid, Raz Kids, Ready Classroom Math, Reflex, GoGuardian, Kami, and Screencastify. T -Mobile for home wifi access.
The biggest challenge is the emotional toll and the unknowns ranging from “Will one of our classrooms or schools need to shut down tomorrow?” to “Will my webcam work? to “Will our online platforms be able to handle the traffic?” Taking all of the things that schools normally do in a non-pandemic environment, such as providing a safe and healthy place to learn, food, Wifi, technology, and counseling, and providing all of these things remotely, has been quite a challenge.
Pre-pandemic, there were signs outside of classrooms asking students how they would like to be greeted, with a handshake, a fist bump, a hug, a smile, or a dance--none of these are acceptable options anymore and I think that realization, for our teachers and our students, has been the hardest. This summer when I was preparing devices for a pickup, I passed the signs in the hallway and began to tear up knowing that it will be a long time before we can see the smiles of a student without a mask or high five a student in the hallway. None of the things translate well in the virtual environment.
What are the advantages of teaching in this environment?
The advantages are that our already amazing and tech-savvy teachers have upped their skills even more and have become experts at creating screencasts, instructional videos, curating content, and not only teaching via videoconference, but also taking full advantage of professional learning opportunities. The silver lining in all of this is how successful our virtual learning professional development series has been--we should have been providing virtual PD before the pandemic.
Do teachers like instructing in this environment?
I think our teachers would prefer every student was in school with them everyday. They have adapted to teaching virtually, but it takes a toll on teachers and families alike. A huge amount of preparation is needed to create online content and to learn new digital tools. Our teachers should be very proud of themselves and they are all working as hard as they can to provide students with the best instruction possible under very difficult circumstances.
How are teachers being supported?
We realize how hard our teachers have been working and have supported them by creating a virtual hub, purchasing new laptops and document cameras for them, and continuing to provide virtual PD opportunities on topics ranging from classroom management in the virtual world to creating engaging and interactive presentations.
Do your students like learning in this environment?
Our K-5 students have the option to come in for a half day, 5 days per week, but our students in grades 6-12 are split into cohorts and come in for two days and then stay home for two days. Some students have come to love the flexibility of virtual learning and some wish they could be in the physical buildings more. It’s hard to make a blanket statement that students like either environment when there are so many other factors going on at the moment.
How are you supporting your students?
We provide each student with a device and we have a community Wifi program for students in need via our partnership with T-Mobile. We also provide lunches and breakfasts, even for students who are remote. Our counseling departments are touching base with virtual students and we created a hub for them as well.
Are parents and families satisfied with this teaching environment?
I think our parents are grateful we offer an in-person option as well as a completely virtual one. Our parents can see the work that has been put into both of these plans and realize that neither solution has been perfect.
How are you supporting your parents and families?
We created a virtual hub for parents and have hosted webinars for parents on technology such as Google Classroom and Google Meet.
Dr. Weber has created a series for virtual learning at home: For example - creating routines
For our Spanish-speaking families, we have created a Facebook page, and outreach staff use apps such as Remind to distribute information about virtual learning.
Did anything unexpected happen (good or bad) during remote learning that can now be used as a teachable moment for others?
One thing unexpected is that our parents have become very tech savvy! They are open to learning about the technology we use and how they can support their students online. They also see that technology is not always perfect and there are many variables we cannot control, and that everyone has to be flexible and have patience.
Anything else you'd like to add about your successes and challenges being an educator during the pandemic?
As the director of technology, I have learned that it is very important to have a team of educational technology specialists and technicians who are fully invested in the plan and will work very hard to provide every staff member and students with access to a device and wifi. I am lucky to have such a team where I work. Since March 1, my team has not taken any breaks and withstood all elements to get devices into the hands of our students, including setting up tents outside to hand delivering mifis to students in need. They treat each technology issue with care and compassion, knowing the technology issue may be the smallest issue that a staff member or child is dealing with that day.
I also think most people wouldn't understand the amount of work that any person involved in education has done in the past 6 months. From our custodians to our principals, to our nurses and business office staff, they have all worked tirelessly while dealing with their own personal pandemic issues to offer our students the opportunity to attend school in person for as long as we possibly can. I hope after this people realize that schools provide much more than an education.
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