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State Senate Task Force To Look At Challenges Posed By COVID-19 School Shutdowns

Following the indefinite shutdown of schools across New Jersey as the state attempts to curb the spread of COVID-19, districts have spent the last month shifting students to a remote learning environment.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senate Education Chair M. Teresa Ruiz and Sen. Sam Thompson formed a special task force to look at the challenges posed by virtual schooling.

On March 2, putting a worst-case scenario into action, the state Department of Education requested schools plan for the possibility of a long-term closure and said distance learning could satisfy New Jersey’s 180-day requirement. As the coronavirus outbreak grew, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered all schools and colleges to close, prompting them to launch unprecedented plans to teach students remotely.

‘Amazing’ Job Done

Districts and teachers “have done an amazing job trying to adapt quickly to remote learning,” Thompson said in a press release.

“The miraculous rapid transition to at-home education is the result of lots of hard work from our dedicated New Jersey educators and the support of our students’ families,” said Thompson. “Individual districts, classes, and families have discovered what works and what doesn’t over the last few weeks, and they’ve also identified gaps in resources and support that need to be filled.”

Task Force Members

The task force, which will be comprised of educators and public officials, “will help us to bring all this information together to improve our remote learning capabilities statewide,” Thompson said.

“We must prepare for the possibility that this crisis will be prolonged or repeated at some point in the future,” he said.

The governor said reopening schools wouldn’t be revisited until at least April 17 and regional coordinated with New York and Connecticut. Recently, Murphy said he don’t foresee graduation ceremonies being held this June at schools.

Panel’s Objective

The panel’s goal is to help provide guidance and insight to meet the wide array of immediate and future challenges for teachers, schools, students and parents, as well as explore ways to seamlessly transition to remote learning during future emergencies.

“We need to do all we can to protect the health and safety of students, teachers and staff at the same time we work to provide a quality education,” Sweeney said.

Ruiz said they’ll identify whatever academic, social, emotional and technological supports are needed to “allow all students and families to emerge from this crisis as best they can.”

Remediation for Students

“While we explore how to better equip our educators to teach remotely and connect all our families to the technology, equipment and internet they need, we must also recognize this is not an ideal learning environment for any child,” said Ruiz. “We know that there will be learning loss and it is important we have plans in place to provide remediation for children who may need it.”

Teaching online is not only being done by local schools districts. The Performing Arts School at bergenPAC is starting online instruction, offering group and private classes in music, dance and theater through the Google Classroom platform.

BergenPac Goes Online

“Our mission to make performing arts and arts education accessible to the community is more important than ever right now,” bergenPAC President & CEO Dominic Roncace said. “We hope giving our regular students and other children across the region the opportunity to study performing arts with our professional teaching faculty from the comfort of their own homes will provide them with a respite during these extraordinary times as they continue to develop their creative passions and discipline.”

Alexander Diaz, creative director at The Performing Arts School at bergenPAC, will direct the online learning program classes offered during certain times of the day that can be uploaded for reference and training as well.

“Even through this most challenging of times, we will ensure the arts and arts education remain alive and students are engaged with their teachers and classmates,” said Diaz.

Need for Free Internet Access

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 90% of homes in New Jersey have a computer or smartphone and 84% have internet access. A survey from the state Department of Education found that 259,000 families don’t have access to computers, laptops or smartphones, according to the governor’s office.

Sweeney and Ruiz are calling on internet providers to give basic free access to households that aren’t online.

The two state senators said while districts may be able to provide Chromebooks and tablets, students need Wi-Fi to connect with their teachers and classmates.

“Companies have a corporate responsibility to provide these services to those in their community who cannot afford them,” according to a statement released by Sweeney and Ruiz. “If we are going to conquer the digital divide it must be a joint effort between service providers, tech companies, school districts and all levels of government.”

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