Alpha School Transition to Online Learning
John Gonzalez, Principal of Alpha School in Jackson, New Jersey describes the process of transitioning to the virtual home learning model in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in March of 2020.
A Monumental Task
This is unprecedented. This is not anything that any of us has ever been through before, so we had no procedures or protocols to do. We have created some initial steps, but we also continue to evolve. One of the biggest challenges we face with virtual learning is that everyone has different needs. Everyone has different capabilities so through the virtual learning process, there’s not just one way to do it. Some people are more comfortable with technologies. Some people have better equipment at home than others, and some of our families don’t have any at all. It’s really all over the map on how we can tailor an academic and therapeutic program to any student at home.
The demographics of every family is different. We have children from very large families, so just imagine the challenges of trying to maintain professional responsibilities at home, those of us who are working from home, and then also maintain responsibilities to our families by taking care of our homes and helping our children with their school-related responsibilities.
We started preparing a week and a half prior to the governor actually shutting our schools down. Having that initial vision went a long way because our teachers and staff were able to prepare while we still had access to our school building. If we didn’t have that initial eight school days to prepare for this, I don’t think it would have gone as smoothly as it did. We started communicating with homes finding out what their capabilities were, not only with our families and students but also with our staff. That allowed us to equip staff and students with electronic devices that we had available. It also gave us an opportunity to accumulate contact information with all of our families--emails and phone numbers. Also, our teachers prepared schoolwork packets that were sent home. Many were sent home backpack-style the Friday before we closed school so many of the families were able to start right away. We were able to send the rest through the mail. So we were in good shape to begin and continue communication once the physical school building was closed.
Up until that last day we were in the building with students which was Friday March 13, we didn’t have any direct messaging to the students because we were still anticipating being open for students that Monday. Over that weekend the governor called for the school closings, so we really didn’t have an opportunity to have any messaging or preparation for the students. Many of them did have a feeling of what was coming down the road. We had communicated with families about the potential for closing at some point and what we were working on, so I’m sure some families shared that with the students. But as far as a whole school message for all students in preparing them, we didn’t have the opportunity for that. For some of our higher functioning students who were well aware the whole time, many responded better than others but there was at least one case of some high anxiety where there was a student who was aware of what was going on and wasn’t responding well. We could see that it was definitely a source of anxiety for that student.
Making It Work
This whole process is evolving. That Monday, we did have our staff in and that permitted them more time to further prepare. They were able to gather a good amount of the things they would need along the way. Since we have been closed there have been very few requests to go into the building to retrieve anything.
We are trying to proceed business as usual except for location. So our students and their families have access to our entire staff for a full school day just as they would if we were open. Modifications have been made based on the capability of each individual student and what they have available at home, whether that be computers, internet access, tablets, devices, and such. Teachers are videoconferencing, FaceTiming, and conducting Zoom meetings. They have the availability to continue their therapeutic sessions such as speech, counseling, occupational, and physical therapy. As part of our instructional programming we are suggesting activities for music, art, health, and physical education. All those things are continuing. We are trying to provide some guidance for students and their families to continue all that at home.
Right now, many teachers are doing one-on-ones, [virtually] meeting with the students individually, but there are also some group activities going on. All of our therapists, Rebecca with counseling, our speech therapists, our occupational and physical therapists, also the staff with the Rutgers UBHC program are all continuing as well. Schedules are remaining the same.
There hasn’t been a great need for this but we have actually placed some orders and had things sent to students’ homes. The situation is continuing to evolve, so we’re evolving with it. As we identify needs, we brainstorm how we can meet them.
We have the pleasure of working with these students and their families, and being part of their academic, therapeutic, and educational programming. Times like these definitely test your limits and show that there is a much grander picture out there. This is life.
A message from Alpha School
These are absolutely difficult times for all of us. On behalf of all our staff at Alpha School, we want to at least keep our families supported through our monthly school articles. Each month we plan on publishing useful information to help, even in a small way, all of our Alpha families cope with these highly unusual circumstances.
We will be with you every step of the way. Should you need anything or have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to us.
Be well, be safe.
From all of us at Alpha School
— John Gonzalez, Principal-Alpha School, Jackson, NJ