Commentary By: Joseph Conway
Many schools in New Jersey came into this pandemic unprepared. Technologically in terms of one to one computers for students, infrastructure behind the scenes, LMS learning platforms, staff development, and even students as digital natives were not ready to take the drastic step to a fully virtual education.
Camden’s Charter School Network had a unique forward-thinking preparation. This is a school district comprised of 2400 students across four buildings in one of the poorest cities in the state. And yet for years Camden’s Charter School Network has been preparing for an entirely virtual experience.
In 2014 there was a great deal of hubbub about a school district in North Jersey calling a virtual snow day and being denied by the NJDOE. Snowstorms during that year had depleted all snow bank days and calendars were being extended or spring breaks being carved away.
Could we do a virtual day if we wanted?! This was the burning question asked of Camden’s Charter School Network.
There was a terse email exchange dated April 2, 2014 to the technology department:
Alright here is a quick link to the schools who asked for a virtual day off. Also the one school cited as Pascack New Jersey. Read it. Learn it. Live it.
This was the task posed to the technology department by the leadership of Camden’s Charter School Network. We reached out and asked all the questions back in 2014. Putting the pieces in place we operationalized a path for the very achievement of a virtual snow day.
Beginning in 2014 was the final distribution and one to one of Chromebooks to all students. From sixth grade forward to twelfth grade they were to take them home with them. All other grades would be actively prepared with one to one computer carts in their classrooms. Every question was posed as to the safety of students walking home with computers in their book bags to them dropping them and breaking them. The concerns were plenty, but the risk reward was too great not to venture down the path.
Students were provided digital training with a digital driver’s licenses that they all had to accomplish eight hours of online tutorials from everything from share drives and saving, to safety, to cyberbullying. Understanding how they might have to memory cache information if they had no Wi-Fi at home was part of the equation.
Teachers were trained for in class use, for digital textbooks, and for assignments. Our schools went through an evolution of LMS platforms (Learning Management Systems) beginning with Schoology as a self-contained system of learning in a virtual classroom, google classrooms, and ending with Canvas. Canvas was chosen as the final setup in congruence with college level on-line classes being offered.
Teachers received merit pay for additional technology projects. Video tutorials were created, webpages designed, and lesson plans placed in a video vault. This continued through 2015 and 2016 and 2017 as our teachers built up their repertoire of best practices conceived. New teachers coming in were trained up over the years and students grading up each year become digital natives in our schools.
From an evolutionary standpoint Camden’s Charter School Network was prepared by 2018 to take the leap into a fully virtual platform. The thinking began as a virtual snow day, but it too had evolved into the idea of if we ever wanted to submit for a virtual charter school in the State of New Jersey we needed to be prepared.
Necessity is the mother of all invention though, and we did not take the full leap until March 17 2020. The COVID 19 pandemic was upon us. Through the declaration of a Health State of Emergency we closed our doors and opened up all of our platforms for a rollout of our fully virtual education program prek-12th grade with a final one-day teacher in-service.
As we look back on our preparation and moving to the point of launch, we were only successful through a careful planning and forward-thinking staff. There was a supportive Board of Education who supported the financial implication of what was being done. We had a versatile and risk-taking technology department. There were teachers along the way who were early adopters on all platforms, media, and applications. They led the rest of the staff who over time embraced the efforts.
We are at a point, looking back, where we feel we can say Camden’s Charter School Network successfully navigated the transition. Lessons were learned along the way and there were some bumps in the virtual road of implementation.
Additionally, after this experience we believe we could absolutely accomplish the chartering of a virtual charter school if we wanted. If we wanted is the statement. Having achieved this great step, it has become apparent to our school as a whole, that there exists a personal dimension of teaching and schooling that we have lost along the way as we have all committed screen time hours. Virtual schooling is fine for some. For our experience we achieved what we had hoped to accomplish.
What was the biggest lesson we learned in the process of going virtual? We would rather be back in school with our children in our physical presence and care.
This is what we learned in our virtual exercise about ourselves as a school system.
Dr. Joseph Conway is the superintendent and co-founder of the Camden Charter School Network that includes four schools in the City of Camden.
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