PJ School District Forms Committees Over Distance Learning Quandaries

PJ School District Forms Committees Over Distance Learning Quandaries

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Superintendent Jessica Schmettan. File photo by Kyle Barr

With this school year coming to an end, the Port Jefferson School District is looking back on the last few months of school to figure out what did and what didn’t work regarding distance learning.

Though Superintendent Jessica Schmettan said she would rather call the rush to create a learning apparatus for students at home an “emergency remote instruction,” she added, “We did the best we could considering the circumstances.”

It was a case, she said, of creating something from nothing. Now with some experience under its belt, the district has commissioned a committee to help establish its reopening agenda. The nearly 50 members of the task force are broken up into four subcommittees, Schmettan said, including facilities, curriculum and instructional, social and emotional wellbeing, and personnel. Included on the committees are representatives from the teachers union, clerical union, facilities union and members of parent-teacher groups like the Port Jefferson Parent Teacher Association, Parent Teacher Student Assocation and Special Education Parent Teacher Association. 

Last week, these local PTA groups released an open letter, which was published in the July 2 issue of the Port Times Record, saying that instruction was uneven across different teachers, where some held live sessions, others would use prerecorded sessions while others only posted content to Google Classroom.

The letter suggested a number of items the district could improve on, including live or prerecorded teaching time that matches what students would receive on a normal school day, and clear schedules for students to follow, including time for outdoor activities.

Schmettan said much of that is likely to be discussed within the committees. There were differences between staff members in how they were able to adapt, she said. Most teachers were using Google Classroom for schoolwork along with Google Meet and Screencastify for hosting teaching broadcasts, though some did use other online subscriptions to have students complete coursework. 

Schmettan said the biggest lesson the district has learned is that not all students are going to respond the same way to the same instruction. Likely, she said, the district will set minimum expectations for both teachers and students as far as what each will be required to do in that distance learning plan. What that will look like will be part of the committees’ discussions.

“We have to differentiate for all the learners involved, and we have to account for their individual needs on a much greater scale than we were able to do the first round,” she said.

Though practically all districts prefer in-person classrooms to distance learning, the Port Jeff superintendent said the thing students most lack from online education is the social aspect of school. The committee will have to consider how that might be amended, as well as how better to facilitate the physical component of education if students are not around for phys-ed teachers guidance.

“When you’re in a distance learning model, you’re isolated, you may not have that same interaction you have within a classroom, or you may not have that ability to discuss concepts with your age-appropriate peers,” Schmettan said. “So much is lost from not having that social impact and play, it’s a detriment to a lot of our students.”

All this still depends on what state guidance will be, whether schools will have to take a hybrid model of in-person/remote education at different parts of the year, if schools will remain virtual or go back to a full in-person learning experience. The problem is, there are different levels of government potentially giving contradictory advice. 

At the state level, there is already the NYS Education Department’s reopening task force, as well as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) reimagine education council. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released school guidance for how best to distance children. This week Betsy DeVos, secretary of education, has effectively demanded that all schools reopen and become “fully operational” on a conference call with governors, despite southern and western states seeing a massive surge in COVID-19 cases in the past month.

“We have to plan for three different scenarios and hope that we can have [the students] back in the classroom full time,” Schmettan said.