First, the PTAC would like to acknowledge the anger, pain and grief that is affecting so many of our families as a result of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Racism and white supremacy can only be eliminated in our country, in our town and in our school district if we accept our responsibility to take action and make changes. As PTAs we commit to that work. We appreciate the principals and teachers who have made resources available to parents who wish to discuss these events with their children, also the MEA for organizing Actions in Response to Racism and the NAACP Youth Council for Sunday’s Black Lives Matter Unity Walk. We look forward to partnering with local groups including the district, the MEA, the Montclair NAACP, the MFEE, the National Independent Black Parents Association, and other community partners who are leaning into the hard work of anti-racism, both locally and nationally.
Secondly, because the end of the school year is near, we need to talk about virtual instruction standards. Although it’s too soon to say when or how we will be in the buildings, the district should be working on a plan for remote instruction based on what the students have experienced in the last 10 weeks. Now, more than ever before, we know the best education for our students’ academic growth and social emotional well-being is to have them in a classroom with their teacher and their fellow students. The goal for remote instruction is to recreate that experience for our students as much as possible.
So we weren’t surprised that from the start back in March, many of our teachers instinctively set to work putting together engaging, virtual classes – sourcing materials on the internet, also creating their own videos and meeting face to face with their students. Honestly, that was our expectation for all of our teachers and how all of our children would learn. And we were grateful that the district distributed laptops and WiFi hot spots to help make this happen for all our families. But as the weeks have gone by, the stories we’ve heard from parents paint an extremely varied landscape – some students are overly scheduled with live classes, while many other students have yet to see or hear from their teachers, despite guidelines that were sent out. There are issues with attendance taking, confusion over where to find assignments and a lack of follow-up or feedback on assigned work. Grading is hard to understand. And teachers and students alike are facing challenges – like not having enough bandwidth or devices in a family to go around and feeling uncomfortable meeting ‘live’.
If we thought COVID-19 was a once-in-a-lifetime aberration that would end before next year, we could just wait and let the kids catch up in the fall. But that would be naive and short-sighted. We need the district to issue virtual instruction standards that would be made applicable in the fall. The state will be coming out with guidelines at some point, but given the complexity of our magnet system and our rich curriculum, those guidelines may not be sufficient to meet the needs of Montclair public school students.
To be clear– we are asking that the district start work now on virtual instruction standards that are specific to a student’s grade level and their ability to access the internet, with a minimum for live instruction of 1 class per week per course (which can be videotaped for viewing after the fact), and to develop best practices for giving assignments and grading during remote instruction. And we want a timeline for when we can have 1:1 technology for grades 6 – 12. The plan should also embrace the concept of scaling – sharing live instruction and original videotaped lessons with students in the same course, across classes or even across schools.
Lastly, we understand that our teachers had only one day, on March 13, to learn how to manage their jobs remotely. Our teachers should be provided professional development and modeling in best practices for remote instruction using Google Suite and the other tools that are available to them through the district’s licenses or free online. Money from unused stipends can be used to hire outside resources, or our own teachers to share best practices they have developed in the last few weeks.
We understand from Ms. Church that there will be a task force dedicated to developing a plan for remote learning with the prospect of students going back and forth between at-home and in-school learning environments, and that PTAC and parents will be represented on that task force. That is a very good sign. We are not education professionals but virtual instruction requires a different kind of partnership between teachers and parents. So we appreciate being involved and look forward to good results.