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To celebrate "Virtual Learning Spirit Week" at Franklin School, fourth-grade teacher Maria Espinosa (left) and Principal Amy Panitch dressed up as superheroes.

To celebrate “Virtual Learning Spirit Week” at Franklin School, fourth-grade teacher Maria Espinosa (left) and Principal Amy Panitch dressed up as superheroes.

As Newark schools shift to remote learning, ‘Spirit Week’ goes digital

When Franklin School students logged on to their devices Monday morning to begin their second week of home learning, a woman in a red cape appeared on their screens to greet them.

“Today is superhero day!” said Principal Amy Panitch in a video message the school posted on YouTube and Facebook. “I can’t wait to see all of you dressed up as superheroes.”

As Newark enters its second week of shuttered school buildings and home confinement amid the new coronavirus pandemic, schools are trying to adjust swiftly to virtual education. At Franklin, a close-knit elementary school in the North Ward, the shift has forced teachers and families to adopt new online tools while trying to maintain some normalcy and community.

To help the transition go more smoothly, the school is hosting a Virtual Learning Spirit Week where students and staffers wear themed outfits on different days and share pictures online and with digital tools like ClassDojo. 

“It’s to keep us united,” said Maria Espinosa, a fourth-grade bilingual teacher at Franklin who wore a Wonder Woman costume on Monday. “For teachers, students, and parents, whether we’re in the same building or not, we’re still one community.”


Panitch got the idea for a virtual Spirit Week from a principals’ Facebook group, where administrators from across the country have been brainstorming ways to keep their school communities connected as the fast-spreading virus forces millions of Americans to stay home. Other Newark schools have taken similar steps to lift students’ spirits remotely. Lafayette Street School celebrated students who dressed up as superheroes such as Iron Man and Superwoman, First Avenue School staff and students flaunted “crazy” hairstyles, and members of the Technology High School community donned “wacky” hats — including, in one photo, a cat held atop someone’s head.

“We really need to engage the students to make them want to log on and do this work every day,” said Panitch, who has spent 15 years at Franklin. “So we’re finding creative ways to do it.”

Newark schools are bracing for the likelihood that students will be stuck at home for an extended period, following Gov. Phil Murphy’s warning that an emergency order closing schools and businesses and keeping residents at home could last months. That possibility has spurred Franklin to shift routines online whenever it can. 

Panitch now delivers her morning announcement from home instead of the main office, but still asks students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and recite the school pledge. Teachers take morning attendance by asking students to post a greeting in Google Classroom or an app called Seesaw. Teachers also have been uploading assignments and recording short lessons and read-alouds.

“We want to set the tone right now that school is still happening and they’re still learning,” Panitch said.

The district created paper take-home packets for every student, which some Franklin teachers digitized. Students can complete the packets online in Google Docs, allowing teachers to check their work daily. Teachers are supplementing the packets with online assignments.

For instance, Espinosa had her students read an article about a girl who designed a prosthetic arm for herself, then use online tools to annotate the article. Espinosa records short tutorials in her living room using a whiteboard she bought on Amazon last weekend. She and her two co-teachers also call each student in their class every morning to make sure they’re keeping up with the work and to answer any questions.

“I’ve never used as many minutes on my phone as I have this past week,” said Espinosa, who has taught at Franklin for 11 years.

Franklin staffers held their first-ever virtual meeting on Zoom.

Franklin staffers held their first-ever virtual meeting on Zoom.

The abrupt switch to remote learning has been a big adjustment for teachers. Last week, the school held its first-ever virtual staff meeting. Many of the 65 staffers who attended were new to Zoom, the online meeting platform, and had to learn to mute themselves while others spoke, Panitch said. Some teachers are still getting the hang of Google Classroom and other digital tools.

The school also is helping families navigate the change. After a survey revealed that some students had to share devices with siblings or complete assignments on cell phones, the school distributed Chromebook laptops to families who needed them. More than 200 students, or nearly half those in grades K-5, have borrowed laptops, Panitch said.

Parent Karla Santiago was worried when Franklin shut down because her family does not have a computer, but the school soon lent a laptop to her son Yomar, who is in fourth grade. Teachers have been calling, texting, and messaging in apps, Santiago said, which has helped as she oversees her children’s home learning while also coping with the temporary loss of her office job due to the pandemic.

“They’re always in contact and making sure the kids are OK,” she said. “I think this will teach parents to appreciate teachers a lot more.”

The school’s virtual Spirit Week continued Tuesday, with Yomar and other students sharing photos of themselves in Franklin blue and yellow. Other acts of school unity were less visible. A school social worker recently had food delivered to a family that was worried about going to the grocery store, Espinosa said. And Espinosa has mailed cards to her students to let them know she misses them.

“I think it helps everyone’s morale when you know you’re not in this scary situation alone,” she said.

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