By Walter J. O’Neill, Jr
Long Branch – Dr. Michael Salvatore, Long Branch Superintendent of Public Schools, has long been known as tech guy and someone with tremendous amounts of energy and insight. He was the main reason that the district updated their technology for students, staff and parents.
During these unsettling times where schools are locked and students are home trying to continue their education remotely, it has created some challenges for educators and parents. Long Branch is a very diverse city, and according to Salvatore nearly 1,000 students didn’t have access to the internet or own a device that would get them on the world wide web.
The digital divide, where some can afford technology and others can’t, has been a huge factor in Salvatore’s planning. “This abrupt transition in learning spotlights the national issue known as the ‘digital divide.’ In every household, there are common necessities including food, utilities, safe sleeping conditions and for most, internet connectivity. Streaming content has become a way of life for many families; watching movies on Netflix, completing homework, or filing your taxes, this is America,” Salvatore said.
“The National Center for Educational Statistics reported nearly 85 percent of families in New Jersey have wireless access in their homes, but the reality in our school community is quite different. The percentage of school-aged families without household wireless internet access more than doubles the state and national averages.”
“I’m pleased to announce that we struck a deal with T-Mobile and have ordered over 900 hotspots which will allow those families access to 5G speed and technology and run several devices at once or can be used by itself to access the internet,” said Salvatore.
Another big issue for urban schools is providing meals to students. During the COVID-19 closure, the Long Branch Public Schools have established several Grab & Go sites. “The term ‘essential employee’ is relative to the crisis at hand. This particular pandemic has extended the definition to include our awesome food-service workers who have worked tirelessly to prepare thousands of meals each day,” added Salvatore.
In an effort to keep the children and community fed, he has orchestrated a blended team combining maintenance, grounds, and custodial workers with the school security specialist. “This team works with our food-service ‘super squad’ to coordinate a safe disbursement of meals daily, which includes deliveries to our children who are homeless. You may not be able to see the smile behind the masks, but our people love this community.”
The district has Grab & Go sites at the Long Branch Middle School, Holy Trinity School, Gregory School, Lenna W. Conrow School and are delivering to the Pleasure Bay Apartments. For the first two weeks the district handed out breakfast and lunch bags Monday-Friday. However, on March 30, the distribution was cut down to Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“We will be giving out a full week of meals, five breakfasts and five lunches, we are just doing it over three days instead of five,” Salvatore said.
During these unprecedented times staff and administrators have been asked to change their educational delivery overnight. That not only puts pressure and stress on them, but think of all the parents who have to help in that undertaking.
“Our parents have been outstanding! We realize the immense pressure of managing a household under normal circumstances, and despite current conditions, every parent has elevated their engagement. The school-to-home connection is at an all-time peak in our community,” said Salvatore.
And that leads into what the teachers have been able to do within a short time. “Teaching and learning have been disrupted forever, but this rattle is not necessarily without merit. We are now witnessing the magic our educators create with an entirely new lens. I admire the risk of live broadcasts and synchronous learning while applauding the make-shift studios developed in basements and living rooms. I never doubted our LBPS family could transition this quickly.”
Salvatore also wants to give credit to his leadership team. He could not have accomplished what he has without the support and expertise of those working with him. “Our District Leadership Team has been working to keep people connected to content and services. Planning has been a truly iterative process, changing each day and planning for the future. We want to keep our community educated, which means informing with current information,” said Salvatore. He added that we all have learned to find normalcy in the unexpected, we will do our best to find new solutions to new concerns and support each other along the way.
As a big urban district, Long Branch has a certain student population that requires specialized instruction and guidance. “Tele-health advancements have helped us restore related services for our neediest children. Social workers and therapists are developing plans to connect in real-time, with varied foci from acquiring language to improving and strengthening mental health,” said Salvatore.
The superintendent has received many questions concerning everything from doctors’ visits to specialized meals. Parents and students also want to know about proms and graduations, and he said he will do whatever is possible to accommodate those requests, when the time is right.