When we think of Zoom, our minds immediately see those now-famous rectangles, with each person who is participating placed into a neat little box. But as the pandemic took hold, it wasn’t just students who were placed into boxes. In many cases, their quality of education became stuck in a box as well.
When ECLC of New Jersey’s Ho-Ho-Kus campus switched to virtual learning, however, we did not just think outside the box, we did everything out of the box. The pandemic may have closed down our school and turned the entire world on its axis, but we successfully met the challenges of continuing to provide both quality educational and recreational activities for our students. Although we may have been separated by computer screens and able to see each other only in small boxes, ECLC took the ultimate social distancing of virtual learning and used it to bring staff, students, and families together in unique and innovative ways.
Essential in the mission of ECLC is to provide an appropriate educational program for our special needs students who are ages 5-21. Meeting their unique instructional needs, learning differences, and behaviors is a challenge for our teachers and staff on a “normal” day. In a pandemic with school closed and everyone shifting to a virtual mode, it became especially daunting.
When the pandemic hit in the Spring of 2020, our staff rose to the task and committed to maintaining quality instruction and support in all academic, therapeutic, and recreational areas.
There was a brief period of adjustment, while staff and families figured out the Zoom program and learned new student schedules and log-in codes for class and therapy sessions. It was clear that the students wanted to be engaged in lessons and stay connected to their friends in the classroom. Teachers planned lessons, collected materials, and mailed instructional packets home on a regular basis. ECLC provided laptops, iPads, and other technology to families who lacked those resources. Parents who had difficulty logging on each day were given individual coaching to resolve the issues.
In a relatively short period of time, teachers were finding various instructional supports such as literacy rich Websites, e-books, interactive math lessons, virtual community trips, and science experiments that easily could be done at home. They shared these resources and supported each other through this strange retraining period. Classes shared planned activities as well. Two of our Work Experience classes get together periodically to play virtual Jeopardy. Our middle Core classes found virtual pen pals at our sister school in Chatham. Our Lower school classes shared a series of virtual community visits and interviews with local Community Helpers.
As part of the commitment to maintain our educational program, we carried on with scheduled annual events such as our Art Show in May. The usual gallery type of display became a virtual art show that was recorded and sent out to families to view and enjoy. Not to be outdone, our physical education classes took part in a Virtual Field Day with adapted indoor activities for students to enjoy. Awards and medals were sent home for all participants. In the fall, we held a Virtual Science Fair.
During our summer Extended School Year (ESY) Program, our instructional theme was “Zooming Around New Jersey.” Every class went on weekly virtual field trips around the State of New Jersey, from High Point to Cape May. These remote trips included videos, textbooks, and other print materials, as well as cross-curricular activities to reinforce concepts and facts. We also used the “class trip” model to introduce and reinforce the concept of wearing masks when students would go outside of their homes. Staff and students put their masks on for each virtual trip.
In addition to offering enriched daily instructional and therapeutic activities for our students, ECLC recognized the need to provide virtual extracurricular activities as well. In a non-pandemic year, students would participate in school spirit days, assemblies, dances, and holiday events.
With a shortened day and in a remote program, however, there would not be time to provide all of the enrichment activities we would be doing in our regular school schedule. Once again, ECLC thought outside the box and began planning a multitude of virtual events.
After-school remote events have included student dances for spring, graduation, fall harvest, holiday, and friendship days. The music teacher is our virtual DJ and selects student favorites to which students can dance and sing along. In addition, there are regularly scheduled Karaoke meetings. In January, we celebrated National Kazoo Day, sending kazoos home for every student and having a “Kazoom” Party after school!
Our social workers have sessions for individual student counseling, as well as Boys and Girls group meetings throughout the year. There are virtual Parent Support Group meetings and Parent workshops offered in partnership with our sister school.
Our 2020 school year ended with virtual graduation, complete with speeches, diplomas, and even surprise celebrity shout-outs. Families were able to celebrate this milestone with as much pride and excitement as if we had been in person.
Perhaps one of the most creative and unique after-school programs ECLC offered was Evening Bedtime Stories for students in our four Lower classes. At the suggestion of a teacher, this was another effort to keep a connection between ECLC and our families during this unusual time. Staff members signed up to read aloud or record a children’s book for a bedtime story. Each evening at 7 p.m., staff and families logged on to Zoom, and our students with their parents and sometimes siblings gathered to listen to a story, some familiar, some new. We determined that from the shut down through our Extended School Year summer program, our students listened to almost 100 great stories with no repeats!
The pandemic was a challenge for all schools, but with ECLC’s dedication to innovative strategies, we were able to remain a vital part of our students’ lives both during the school day and beyond despite being virtual. By continuing to provide quality academics paired with after-school activities that were both enriching and fun, ECLC students continued to thrive.
ECLC may have been tested during the pandemic, as all schools were, but our commitment to maintaining normalcy for our students became stronger than ever! With innovative ideas and creative thinking that went beyond the box, the rectangles keeping us apart began to blur and then disappear completely, keeping together our strong and vibrant ECLC family, Zooming through and beyond the pandemic together.
By Peggy Walsh, Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant, & Heidi Ritzel, Art Teacher