Brigantine residents, particularly those with school-age children, were urged in a message from Deputy Mayor Vince Sera to tune in to the “Hurley in the Morning” radio show on Monday, March 23, to hear a special segment regarding the unprecedented challenges of remote schooling caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The hour-and-a-half segment aired on WPG Talk Radio 95.5 FM and 1450 AM, and online at WPGTalkRadio.com. The show is hosted 6 to 10 a.m. weekdays by Harry Hurley.
School Superintendents Glenn Robbins and Bob Garguilo were the special guests, each fielding questions from Hurley and offering advice and opinions based on years of experience as school administrators.
Robbins only started as the Brigantine Community School superintendent about two months ago. He previously served as superintendent of the Tabernacle School District near his native hometown in Burlington County from 2016 through 2019, and as principal of Northfield Community Middle School from 2012 through 2016. While at Northfield he was named National Association of Secondary School Principals Digital Principal of the Year for innovative learning practices.
Garguilo, a Brigantine resident and former colleague of Robbins in Northfield, has been an educator since 1986, retiring as the chief school administrator of the Folsom School District in 2013. He came out of retirement to serve as interim superintendent in the Northfield School District, and currently serves as interim superintendent for the Cape May City and West Cape May school districts. He is also an officer for the nonprofit New Jersey Interdistrict Public School Choice Association.
Some of the key talking points of the discussion follow. The entire conversation was condensed due to space restrictions. Hurley began his line of questions by asking Garguilo how things were going in general with the school districts he oversees.
“The collaboration among the educational community has just been tremendous,” said Garguilo, noting that schooling is currently being conducted through such online web and video conferencing programs as Google Meet and Zoom.“And by the way, most of these teachers have kids, so they're at home trying to work with their own kids and families while teaching online, so hats off to everybody in the educational community during these difficult times.”
Hurley asked if teachers and staff continue to get paid while the schools are closed.
“And I bring that up only because a lot of people don't realize who's getting paid, who's not getting paid, so please comment about that,” he said.
“Absolutely. I mean, I can only speak for my two districts, but we made it clear that nobody suffers,” Garguilo said. “Teachers, aides, custodians, even if they're hourly, are getting paid. These are people, especially hourly people, who need this money to survive. Custodians are cleaning the buildings in the same way they would during the summertime when nobody else is there, and getting things ready for when school eventually reopens.”
Hurley asked Robbins how things were going in general in Brigantine.
“Absolutely amazing, and it doesn't just happen with the school system alone,” Robbins said. “I've been in constant contact with the mayor, our Board of Education, our city manager — a team of teams meeting, if you want to call it that — since about a week-and-a-half before we were removed from the building.
“Our OEM (Office of Emergency Managment) Director (Brian Feehan), the Chief of Police (Rich Casamento), our Fire Chief (Tige Platt) — basically all the department heads in the whole town discussed everything that we could look at, and not just from an educational standpoint but with all the additional services that we have to offer.”
The Brigantine Community School continues to deliver meals to students in a manner that adheres to social-distancing protocol.
“The coordination that we put together in a short time was remarkable, because we know it's going to take the entire island,” Robbins said. “I could not be more proud. To echo Bob's sentiments it's a whole new, unique world we're living in right now. ...
“When this all started going down I had multiple faculty meetings with my staff and told them that, if ever there was a time that you're truly going to be an educator, and work with families and get back to the deep roots of what you got into this profession for, this is it,” Robbins added. “(Teachers') communication with families now is more important than ever, and students have to have some sort of social connection to interact with their friends. Human nature is a social animal. ... I don't know when these dominoes are going to stop falling and make it OK for us to go back, but when we do go back, I will have an even greater sense of utmost respect not only for my staff, but for the teaching profession around the globe.”
Hurley said that, as a former school board member himself, one-on-one correspondence between teachers and students is something he sees as crucial.
“Maybe seeing each other through Facetime, teleconferencing — e-mailing is better than nothing but you can't really engage in proper two-way communication with e-mails,” Hurley said. “A lot can get lost or misinterpreted.”
“Glenn and I have been conversing a lot about this,” Garguilo said. “Over the last few days there's been a lot of tweaking, and trying to figure out how to proceed and move forward, knowing that this is probably for the long haul. So far we've used certain social-media platforms that the parents, students and teachers really understand, but this week we'll be moving into a new platform that's even more interactive.
“Understand that these kids rely on us 180 days per year, and not just during regular school hours but also with pre- and after-school programs,” Garguilo added. “We need to continue to do that, and the best way is to maintain constant communication between the teacher and the student, and also the administration (and the student), because those kids not only see the teachers every day, they see us. ...
“The main point is, we need to keep the lines of communication going. Teachers take a personal interest in their children and, especially in smaller schools, see many of them from kindergarten all the way through eighth grade, so there's a connection there. And for them to not be in the classroom with the children, knowing their daily routines, knowing their daily lives, that can be stressful for a teacher.
“It can be hard to get a pulse for what exactly is going on through digital platforms, so when they hear things or they feel that there may be an issue, contact your guidance counselors, contact your crisis teams. My guidance counselors in both districts are working with the teachers, who need to have those resources so that they can feel — if a student or students seem under duress — they have a platform through which to reach out.”
Robbins noted that lesson planning should be as diversified as school districts themselves tend to be.
“One of the things that really hit home with our staff is that there's a lot of schools trying to require that kids be online at a certain time to do a certain lesson, and be pretty much on that kind of schedule all day,” Robbins said. “I have a difficult time with that. I asked our staff to be more asynchronous, similar to a college online-level course in a way. And we have to be aware that parents' work schedules can be sporadic throughout the day. Not everybody works a 9 to 5 shift. This is all very abnormal right now.”
Hurley noted that the Trump administration recently announced that states can cancel federally required standardized testing among grade-schoolers this year. He sees that as a positive, and as something he hopes remains perpetually discarded.
“All these children are completely different in the learning process,” Garguilo concurred. “In light of what we're going through, what do we need it for? What are we measuring? We need to focus on our children and a focus on our learning.
“When that first hit, social media was blowing up like crazy from educators everywhere saying 'Please stop the standardized tests,'” Robbins added. “I give a tremendous among of credit to the states that jumped out ahead.”
Hurley gave each administrator a chance for closing comment.
“Take a deep breath and take it day by day,” Robbins said. “Everything's going to continue to evolve, but the biggest thing is communication. Where there's no communication, negativity starts to fill that void. So reach out, go back and forth with the teachers — we're all in this together, and in many cases we have our own children and our own headaches going on. This is happening throughout the country.”
“These are challenges we'll be facing day to day, 24-7,” Garguilo said. “I urge people to turn off the TV and spend the time with your families. As Glenn said, build a garden, do things with your family.”