As the coronavirus outbreak bore down on the region, Toby Albanese was in a meeting laying out how Merion Elementary School would prepare when he got the word: The state was closing schools. Teachers needed to go home.
“Even the two afternoons teachers were going to have … to plan, they no longer had those opportunities,” said Albanese, principal of the Lower Merion public school.
Since Pennsylvania closed schools March 13 — and New Jersey followed days later — educators, students, and families have been learning on the fly as they and schools across the nation have scrambled to shift instruction from classrooms to homes.
The pivot has presented the challenge of rapidly moving lessons online, training staffs, and supplying computers to students. It has also raised questions: How do you track attendance? What lessons do you prioritize? And how much work is too much for children being supervised by older siblings or by parents juggling jobs — or dealing with job losses?
“We’re trying to conduct school as we know it, but we’re attempting to do it in an environment that’s unknown. We don’t know how life is unfolding day by day in the households within our community,” said Maureen Reusche, superintendent of the Haverford Township School District.
“I wouldn’t call this online learning. I would call this emergency remote learning,” said Jim Scanlon, superintendent of the West Chester Area School District.
In Pennsylvania — where the state initially closed schools without ordering that they keep teaching students, but now is requiring “a good-faith effort” to continue instruction — some districts have been providing online assignments to students since the first week of the closures. Others won’t begin formal instruction until later this month.
In New Jersey, which has required schools to continue teaching students, preparing for the shift “was quite literally a whirlwind,” said Superintendent George Rafferty of the Mount Laurel School District. “We made use of every hour we had available … to get our staff ready.”
While all 3,900 first through eighth graders in the Burlington County district had computers at school, they had not been taken home. The district enlisted every employee, including custodians, paraprofessionals, and teachers, to distribute the devices, Rafferty said.
Technology remains a hurdle in other districts. The Philadelphia School District has been distributing Chromebooks to students, with plans to begin online learning the week of April 20. Many students also lack internet access.
The district is negotiating the purchase of mobile hot spots for students, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Friday.
To be sure, online learning experiences vary by district and grade level, and much of that has to do with economics.
“We’re already dealing with an achievement gap,” said Michael Kozak, an assistant professor in Drexel University’s School of Education. “My fear is that this is just going to exacerbate that gap. And it compounds — the longer it goes that students don’t have instruction, the more that gap will widen."
Typically, teachers are posting assignments via online platforms, and setting up “office hours” for students to ask questions.
In Mount Laurel, for instance, a second grader might be asked to be online for two hours, moving through science, art and math on Monday, then switching to social studies, gym and English on Tuesday.
School leaders say teachers have faced a learning curve.
In the Cheltenham School District, which will launch online instruction Monday, teachers spent last week preparing.
“We didn’t want to say, ‘Hey, teachers. All of the children have computers, you have computers, ready, set, go,’” said assistant superintendent Tamara Thomas Smith.
School leaders say they are emphasizing flexibility as they try to accommodate the circumstances families are facing, giving students multiple days to complete assignments.
They are also adjusting as they go. West Chester decided that tracking attendance was a burden for teachers, who have been doing double duty as “tech support” for families, said Scanlon, the superintendent. Instead, secondary students will be marking themselves present through the district’s online platform.
While a student theoretically could “check the box and go back to sleep,” Scanlon said, teachers will be monitoring whether they complete work.
Many districts have been grappling with how to assess students’ performance. In some districts, including Downingtown, younger students aren’t being graded. “We don’t want to increase stress in an already stressful situation,” said Jennifer Shealy, district spokesperson.
School leaders largely said they are letting students complete work at their own pace — to account for differing family schedules, and so multiple children in a home don’t need to use computers at the same time.
But many are also looking to incorporate live video meetings and lessons. In Haverford Township, “elementary teachers are desperately asking to do a morning meeting with our students,” said Reusche, the superintendent. She said the district intends to train teachers to manage online classrooms.
“The longer this goes on, we have to create that opportunity for human interaction,” she said.
Philadelphia’s Universal Audenried Charter School, which will begin online lessons Monday, will have staff make appearances on social media platforms like TikTok and Facebook Live, said principal Blanchard Diavua.
All school workers will be making some kind of connection with students — “even our support staff,” Diavua said. “Everyone will have a caseload and be checking in with families.”
Despite the challenges of the transition, there have been bright spots.
James Lavender, superintendent of the Kingsway Regional School District in Gloucester County, said online learning has benefited some "kids who were shy, anxious about getting involved in school.”
At Merion Elementary, fourth and fifth graders had been looking forward to performing a chorale concert last week. Instead, their teacher assembled a montage of parent-submitted photos of the students singing, using a recording of a rehearsal as the soundtrack, said Albanese, the school’s principal.
The idea was to create a sense of normalcy, which is “a heavy lift,” Albanese said. "If we’re honest, it’s not normal at all.”