For the last two weeks, social studies teacher Eric El has tried to find ways to keep his students engaged and learning at home on their laptops.
An eighth-grade teacher at Morgan Village Middle School in Camden, El watches carefully for the telltale signs: heads nodding, eyes glazing over, and cameras turning off.
“You’ll see the drop-off,” said El. But he quickly switches his approach to grab students’ attention, calling out their name. He also used videos and movies to hold their interest.
As many districts have switched to virtual this year to account for coronavirus-related staffing shortages, teachers have had to dust off their virtual tool kit as learning resumes on screens.
Much about the return to living-room classrooms has been easier because students were already familiar with the technology, but remote learning still holds the same challenges as it did in the days of 2020-21: Attendance is poor, and boredom and distractions set in, especially for students who take care of younger siblings and have to assist them with their own online studies. And this time around, everyone is aware that virtual learning has a short shelf life.
In the meantime, teachers are trying to compensate with less homework, easier lessons, and encouragement to stay on task.
“It was easier this time,” said Burlington Township School Superintendent Mary Ann Bell. She added, however: “Remote learning is not perfect. None of us will say that.”
In New Jersey, more than 700 public schools shifted to remote learning after the omicron surge left many without adequate staff to open after the holiday break, according to the New Jersey Department of Education. They are expected to return to in-person learning Tuesday, except in Camden, where officials announced late Friday that Veterans Memorial Family School and Forest Hill Family School will remain remote until Jan. 21 and its four high schools will be on a half-day schedule.
In South Jersey, Camden was among the largest districts that moved to virtual learning. Others included: Barrington, Brooklawn, Burlington City, Burlington Township, Clayton, Deptford, Glassboro, Lindenwold, Paulsboro, Somerdale, Waterford, Williamstown, Willingboro, and Winslow.
In Philadelphia, more than 100 schools were closed because of COVID-19, and many that remained open were struggling to staff classes as teachers were sickened by the virus or quarantining, although only a handful are expected to remain virtual next week. In the Pennsylvania suburbs, closures have been fewer.
Bell said her district, which enrolls about 3,800 students, was forced to go virtual when 200 staff members were affected by COVID-19 and 100 more were in isolation. They included teachers, administrators, aides, and bus drivers, making the return “very scary.”
”It impacted every single department,” Bell said. “We would have struggled to bring kids in.”
El and fellow teachers at Morgan Village have been sharing ways to help students stay on track during remote learning. Sonya Sabb, a science teacher, begins her virtual classes by asking students to call or text a missing classmate.
Sabb, who teaches four successive 30-minute classes — two hours without a break — said the pace can be grueling.
”It’s exhausting,” she said.
Despite her best efforts to make sure students are learning, math teacher Lauren Nuss said she misses the a-ha moments in a classroom, such as when she presents new math problems and can see students’ faces showing “that they got it.”
“I’m hoping that no matter what happens, whether we go back or stay home, that I’ve done enough to get them prepared,” Nuss said.
Sabb introduces one new concept a day instead of her usual two or three. She also doesn’t assign homework, in an attempt to avoid overwhelming students who already spend hours on computers.
”We’re doing the best we can to push them,” Sabb said.
El requires his students to wear what he calls “professional” wear — anything except lounge wear. He encourages them to get comfortable on camera by creating a school environment and wearing a favorite hat, hoodie, or school jacket.
”These kids are so resilient,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s not just about academics. I just want to see them thrive again.”
Syrita Watson, and her husband, Aaron, of Deptford, said helping two older sons with online classes has been tough, keeping them focused and not playing video games. A third attends full-day in-person kindergarten.
”It’s draining on the parents,” said Aaron Watson. “I’m exhausted mentally.”
Some students said the abrupt swift to remote learning was somewhat easier than last year because they already had Chromebooks and were familiar with using online programs to get their assignments.
“I like virtual learning,” said Damian Irizarry, a freshman at Charles Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden. “After the first week it was normal like last year.”
But Ethan Alexander, 15, a sophomore at Williamstown High School in Gloucester County, said he has struggled to complete assignments. He expects to catch up when in-person learning resumes after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“I’m still learning things. But it’s not as easy to grasp things as when I was in school,” Alexander said. “I’m just looking forward to getting back.”
Bell hopes that new guidelines released by the state Department of Health last week that allow schools to shorten COVID-19 quarantines to five days will ease the pandemic’s impact on attendance — for students and staff.
Under the changes, which align with CDC recommendations, those who test positive can return to school on the sixth day, provided their symptoms have improved. They should continue to wear a mask for four more days, according to the guidelines.
The recommendations apply only to K-12 schools and are not mandatory; districts can impose their own quarantine rules.
”It is my intent to stay open,” said Bell. “I’m hopeful that we don’t see any type of surge like we saw this time.”