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The MTPS Journey to Virtual Home Instruction: A Success That was Years in the Making

Virtual Home Instruction On Monday, March 16th, the Middletown Township Public School District logged on instead of coming to school.

Harmony Elementary School Principal Erik Paulson and his colleagues guided their student bodies through morning announcements with live streamed sessions. Paulson made his morning address from the comfort of a former storage closet in his home, one he converted into his virtual principal’s office.

Across the district students gathered with teachers and peers in Google Hangouts to conduct their morning meetings.

And from his basement, High School North Science Teacher, Timothy St. Clair used the digital platform, Screencastify to broadcast chemistry experiments to help enhance the learning experience of his students.

“If I learned anything over the last 22 years of teaching, it’s that you have to adapt to the situation,” St. Clair said. “There was no apprehension for me, and I didn’t get that sense from my colleagues either. If anything, I think there was a sense of excitement to tackle a new challenge. The district has been great about providing resources, and the students have been great about logging on when they can and asking questions. Instead of raising their hands in class, they’re popping into a Google Hangout. We have to do what we have to do.”

Through the first week of Virtual Home Instruction the district vision has come to fruition: Middletown Township Public Schools are not closed in the wake of COVID-19 Coronavirus, but thriving, as educators continue to implement a digital learning plan that aligns with New Jersey Student Learning Standards and advances instruction.

Though the plan was only instituted earlier this week, it’s one that was years in the making.

Middletown Township Public Schools became a Google for Education District in 2011, and a one-to-one initiative to provide every student with an internet-capable device began in select grades in 2013. Every student in grades 3-12 received a district-issued device by 2014.

The district also brought several Education Technology Specialist positions online in 2013 to provide in-house professional learning for elementary school educators. These positions were expanded to middle schools and high schools in subsequent years.

By the 2016-17 school year the Board of Education signed a resolution committing to the national Future Ready framework. Since then the district has taken a leadership role in the development of the Future Ready Schools New Jersey initiative. In 2019 the district was one of four, and by far the largest of the group, to earn the status of Future Ready Silver with Distinction, the highest level of Future Ready achievement.

This recognition would not have been possible without the District placing a priority on personalized learning, as well as targeted investments in digital education technology hardware replenishment, online learning platforms and research databases. These concepts and tools have since been integrated into our district and building level goals, in addition to updated curricula. 

The district has also adopted a personalized learning model of professional development, in which staff members are encouraged to engage in independent studies and turnkey their expertise to colleagues, and/or earn certifications and badges in numerous platforms (including Google Level 1 or 2 Educator, Global Education, FlipGrid ambassador).

This model also prompted the development of the inaugural MTPS EdCamp in November 2019, as well as the growth of the summertime Jersey Shore EdCamp at Monmouth University, which was founded in 2015 by educators from across the state, including a group of district staff members. These day-long professional learning summits encourage educators to choose the topics of conversation and lead their peers in learning.

All of these steps taken over the last decade aimed to empower students and staff to accept an active role in their development as lifelong learners, and carry themselves with confidence into new learning environments, such as Virtual Home Instruction.

“We live in a world where learning environments are changing so quickly, and in an effort to provide our students with an education that can best prepare them for life after Middletown schools, we had to commit to changing the way we thought about education,” said Superintendent of Schools, William O. George III, Ed. D. “Over time, the conversation about Future Ready changed. It became about pedagogy, professional learning, and using measurable outcomes to develop personalized learning goals for both students and staff. A commitment to that approach from our entire school community is what has allowed us to take on Virtual Home Instruction with confidence, and succeed in this moment of uncertainty.” 

Admin team preps for Virtual Home Instruction launch.

The spread of COVID-19 Coronavirus forced the district to act quickly in preparation for the launch of Virtual Home Instruction. However, our school community proved to have the capacity to work on a tight timeline, thanks to the infrastructure already in place, and the technology experience of students and staff.

  • Central office staff, including the Director of Information Systems, David Siwiak, and curriculum Supervisor of Technology, Wendy Morales, met on Friday, March 6th to draft a Virtual Home Instruction plan that was modified on Monday and Tuesday of the following week with feedback from the entire administrative team and district specialists.
  • The district distributed an Internet Technology Accessibility Survey to the school community on Monday, March 9th to assess technology hardware and WiFi needs. In just two days, the survey results accounted for nearly 99 percent of the student body. The district used that data to purchase additional WiFi hotspots for families in need.
  • One unified platform (Google Classroom) was chosen to maintain consistency for learners across the district.
  • All K-12 instructional specialists (reading, math, educational technology) came together on Tuesday, March 10th to collaborate on best digital practices, and created resources to support classroom teachers.
  • On March 11th, those specialists relayed that information to colleagues, and grade-level peers met to collaborate and train during a 75-minute professional learning session following the school day.
  • Specialists continued to provide one-on-one support to colleagues on March 12-13 during the school day. Teachers were ready to “go virtual” by the end of the day Friday, March 13. 
  • Internet-capable devices and WiFi hotspots were first available for pickup on Friday, March 13th and Monday, March 16th. Additional dates and times have been made available on an as-needed basis. To date, there have been 417 internet-capable devices and 26 WiFi hotspots distributed to district families.
  • The District Internet Technology team has also been available daily during regular business hours via email and on-site at High School North to receive questions and troubleshoot any issues with devices or software.

Since the March 16 launch of Virtual Home Instruction, administrators have engaged in “virtual walkthroughs” of staff’s Google Classrooms to ensure quality and advancement of instruction, as well as to provide feedback to teachers. Administrators and specialists have been available to provide real-time support to colleagues, students and parents as they navigate Virtual Home Instruction. Parents have also been provided technology support resources to help effectively support their children at home.

In addition to online learning, students are engaging in non-technology aided learning, including social-emotional learning activities, logging reading time, practicing musical instruments, engaging in physical and health-related activities assigned by Physical Education  teachers, completing art projects as assigned by Art teachers, and much more.