Category Archives: coronavirus

ECLC of New Jersey Successfully Offers In-Person Education for Students with Special Needs

Children with disabilities, such as Down syndrome, are among those most vulnerable to COVID-19, yet since September classrooms have been open at ECLC of New Jersey’s schools for students with special needs.

The schools located in Chatham and Ho-Ho-Kus reopened in the Fall and have remained open nearly every day for in-person education. 

Of course, it wasn’t easy returning 250 students, who live in towns all across New Jersey, to the classroom. Strict protocols had to be established, and the administration had to reconfigure classrooms to reduce risks. 

Each day, students are temperature-checked before they can enter the building, and parents must complete a COVID-19 Risk Assessment questionnaire, either on a phone app or paper. Students and staff are masked up. Plexiglass shields are installed on  desks to enhance safety.

The school day looks different, too. The schedule has been shortened to four hours daily, and students mostly stay within their assigned classroom, except for gym class, sensory breaks, speech therapy or other specialized services. Art and music are taught virtually by teachers brought into the classroom through Zoom video.

In addition to creating a safe, in-person learning environment, ECLC has worked creatively to continue its work-readiness program. ECLC students graduate at age 21 and spend their final years preparing for life as adults. Usually, older students travel into the community for job sampling and to take tours of work sites. 

During the pandemic that’s impossible, so teachers have brought small jobs into the classroom to continue developing work skills. Students have completed a variety of projects, from stuffing calendars into plastic bags for the Borough of Chatham to customizing shopping bags for a florist shop. 

The schools have used Zoom to continue activities across classrooms and to include remote learners. Girl Scouts, clubs and after-school social events, such as dance parties and singalongs, help boost school spirit.

This inclusionary environment is important because about one-third of students are continuing with remote learning. They learn through a live video feed of the classroom teacher and on Zoom for related-services therapy sessions.

“In this hybrid model, we are proud to provide in-person instruction and related services to the maximum extent possible, while continuing remote learning at the highest quality for those students who cannot join us in school,” said Chatham School Principal Jason Killian. 

Given the choice of going back to school or remote learning, an overwhelming number of families sent their students back to the classroom. Killian was not surprised. “In-person instruction is critical to our students with special needs who thrive on routine, structure and direct access with teachers and therapists,” he said. 

Beth Freeman, whose daughter, Micayla, 10, has Down syndrome, agrees. “It has had an enormously positive impact for Micayla to go back to school,” she said. “Our kids with Down syndrome need in-person therapy, and they thrive on schedules. I was starting to see behavior changes and regression. Since going back, it’s been like night and day.”

Freeman has been impressed with how ECLC has handled the pandemic. Micayla transferred to the ECLC Chatham school last year, just four weeks before the COVID-19 lockdown. “Last March, they did a great job of pivoting from in-person to live Zoom classes and sending home packets,” she said. “They were really prepared.” 

Another parent, Eldy Pavon, understands the concerns of families who are keeping their children at home. Initially, she kept her son, Nico, out of school because she was worried about the risks of exposure. For the past year, they have done everything possible to keep the family safe, especially Nico, who is immunocompromised. “We basically don’t leave the house,” she said. “We don’t see anyone or have anyone over.”

So, when the Chatham school re-opened in September, she chose remote learning for Nico. “I wanted to see how things went,” she said. “And, they did a great job. By November, I felt comfortable sending him back to the school.” As an extra precaution, either she or her husband drive Nico from Westfield to the Chatham school.

Like many parents of children with special needs, she had noticed regression with Nico when he was out of school and those have disappeared. “Getting back to school is about more than academics. It’s really key to his emotional and social growth,” she said. “I am so grateful that he can see his friends again. Other districts should look at ECLC and follow in their footsteps — it’s been life changing for us!”

Nico is back in the classroom and loving it. “He’s like a totally different child. He’s very routine-oriented, and this puts him back into a routine,” said Pavon. “Plus, it gives us separation between family members. His younger sister is at home two days a week for her schooling; my husband is working from home. We were all on top of each other. This has relieved a lot of stress.”

The same is true for the Freeman family. When Micayla was learning remotely, there were challenges for her parents. “Her dad or I would need to monitor Micalaya during class and then work at night to make up for the lost time,” said Freeman. 

That’s no longer necessary with Micayla back at school. “She loves her teacher and comes home from school happy,” said Freeman. “When your child comes home laughing and smiling, it makes all the difference in the world. It makes you feel good.”  

About ECLC

In 2020, ECLC celebrated 50 years of offering “Education, Careers & Lifelong Community” to children and adults with special needs, including autism, Down syndrome and multiple disabilities.

The nonprofit was founded in 1970 as the Early Childhood Learning Centers of New Jersey to provide early-intervention services to a handful of pre-school children. 

Today, ECLC is an accredited, nonprofit with schools in Chatham and Ho-Ho-Kus, educating about 250 students, and additional programs serving more than 500 adult clients and ECLC school alumni.

ECLC offers transition and employment services through its affiliate, Community Personnel Services (CPS). CPS helps adults with disabilities find jobs in their communities and provides ongoing support and advocacy in the workplace.

Graduates who are not ready for the workplace can enter the PRIDE Adult Program, with centers in Florham Park and Paramus. More than 170 adults are enrolled in PRIDE, which is exclusively for ECLC alumni. Adults in PRIDE spend meaningful days in activities, volunteering in the community and continuing to learn and grow throughout adulthood. Learn more about ECLC.

COVID Can’t Cancel Work Skills Program

Usually, ECLC of New Jersey‘s students with special needs get hands-on work experience before graduating by job “sampling” in the community.

This school year, the pandemic brought on-site, job training to a halt, so, the Chatham school built an entirely new program to make sure Upper School students could continue developing their work skills.

“We are doing everything possible, within the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Teachers have to be creative!,” said the Chatham School’s Work Skills Program Coordinator, Stacie Webber.

Webber is bringing work projects into the classroom for students to safely complete. They recently sorted pasta for the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges, which is playing an important role in supporting families and individuals facing food insecurity during this difficult time. They stuffed 2021 municipal calendars into plastic bags for the Borough of Chatham to deliver to residents. They completed a packaging job for the Veterans Hospital in Basking Ridge. And, they customized small shopping bags for Sunnywoods Florist! The school also hosts Zoom meetings with business owners as a guest speakers.

“They work on other jobs, too, such as making copies, taking virtual field trips to potential job sites, in-house shredding or more,” said Webber. “They came up with a mask-selling project for school families and staff. Students took charge of the entire sales and fulfillment process, from collecting orders and counting money to sorting orders and distributing them to each classroom.” 

Students learn job skills to help prepare them for life after graduation as part of what’s called the SKIL (Seeking Knowledge for Independent Living) Program.

Students customized paper bags for Sunnywoods Florist in Chatham Borough!

In pre-COVID days, Upper School students, ages 18-21, would take walking trips into downtown and ride the bus for field trips and work opportunities. However, this school year, they cannot go on any community outings because of the risks. Many of these students are especially vulnerable.

“SKIL is critical to the success of ECLC’s students, preparing them for life as adults and working in jobs, as they are able,” said Chatham School Principal Jason Killian. “We are grateful to business owners and other community members who have supported us in this difficult year by sending in work projects. Our students learn new skills and enjoy the wonderful feeling of success and pride in completing a work project!”

If you have a work opportunity for our students or want to participate as a guest speaker, please contact Principal Jason Killian by sending an e-mail to jkillian@eclcofnj.org or calling 973-601-5410. Learn more about ECLC!

Keeping Active in the August Break

Our school’s Extended School Year (ESY) is over, and keeping children busy during the month of August is no easy task. But, add in a pandemic, and we have even fewer ways to keep children entertained. 

Below are some fun and safe ways to keep children active, during these difficult times:

  • Online fitness for families and a list of sports programs. 
  • Kids entering pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade can explore animals, science and nature through the online Bronx Zoo Wildlife Camp 
  • Camp Sunshine is a structured program developed for young people between the ages of six to 21, with moderate to severe autism spectrum disorder or other special needs. Their multidisciplinary team of professionals oversees a creative and fun boy-843484_1920camp program designed to help each child reach his or her highest potential. 
  • Visit a petting farm from the comfort of your car or walk through it at Brookhollow’s Barnyard in Boonton. 
  • It is important to continue reading books for pleasure; visit Scholastic for ideas.
  • Epic offers access to hundreds of free books.
  • The SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Daytime Emmy®-nominated and award-winning children’s literacy website, Storyline Online®, streams videos featuring celebrated actors reading children’s books, alongside creatively produced illustrations. Readers include Oprah Winfrey, Chris Pine, Kristen Bell, Rita Moreno, Viola Davis, Jaime Camil, Kevin Costner, Lily Tomlin, Sarah Silverman, Betty White, Wanda Sykes and dozens more.
  • Pinterest offers a ton of fun arts and crafts activities.

Getting Ahead of Back-to-School 

Lastly, try to spend a little time preparing your child for a return to school in September. Whether attending in-person or virtually, a review of expectations and changes will help them feel more at ease with the transition.

Practice and highlight the importance of wearing a mask, keeping a safe distance from their friends and teachers and washing their hands consistently.

Stay safe and healthy from the ECLC of New Jersey Ho-Ho-Kus school Staff!

By Cynthia Chaanine, LCSW, & Matthew Kuzdral, M.S., BCBA

 

Giving Our Parents Extra Support During the Pandemic

Help with Staying at Home

For many years, our Ho-Ho-Kus school has hosted monthly, in-person Parent Support Group meetings. They have been very successful in drawing a small, intimate group of parents to meet for learning, sharing information and support.

But, in the past six weeks, we felt it was more important than ever to offer our families support and an opportunity to meet with each other. The interest level has been so high, we now meet every week with our incredible families! Sometimes, the meetings are so helpful, our parents don’t want it to end. 

Parent Support Group Facebook (1)

Here is a brief overview of some of the topics and strategies we have discussed:

Self-Care for Parents and Creating a Routine (3/26/20)

  • Make sure you have accurate information and set limits.
  • Reach out to others and support people around you.
  • Talking to your children about COVID-19 and the changes that are occurring.
  • Create a routine using school as the framework.

Creating Consistency at Home (4/2/20)

  • Incorporate visual schedules to stay on-track with the day’s activities.
  • Stick to normal wake-up, grooming, eating and bed-time schedules.
  • Clearly outline and reinforce expected behaviors.
  • Build in regular sensory and movement breaks.

Helping Your Children Deal with Disappointments (4/9/20)

  • Celebrating holidays virtually.
  • Starting new traditions.
  • How to help others in the community.
  • Make a “Some Day Soon” jar.

Making the Most of Downtime (4/16/20)

  • Continue use of schedules, even on days without virtual learning.
  • Plan virtual “trips” to museums, zoo’s, concerts and parks.
  • Take advantage of time outside: Set-up a simple obstacle course in the yard or do a “scavenger hunt,” while walking through the neighborhood.
  • Promote independent leisure skills; extra electronics time is okay.

Supporting Your Child through Virtual Learning with Peggy Walsh, Learning Disabilities Teaching Consultant (4/30/20)

  • Prepare ahead of time: Have a designated learning space with all daily materials ready.
  • Provide less verbal and more non-verbal prompts during instruction times (pointing, gesturing, modeling).
  • Give your child adequate time to process and respond to questions.
  • Sit to the side and slightly behind your child to help ensure their focus is on the teacher.

We will be continuing these Parent Support Group meetings throughout the school year to provide ongoing support and advice to our parents. Upcoming meetings will feature other staff members as “guest speakers,” highlighting relevant topics.

Stay safe and healthy!

By Cynthia Chaanine, LCSW, and Matthew Kuzdral M.S., BCBA

How to Successfully Cope in Our New Virtual World

Greetings from our new virtual world! Hi, everyone, wherever you may be during the COVID-19 outbreak. This is an important time for us to stay in touch and connected. It’s a time for social distancing, not social isolation.

All of us feel the stress of change and anxieties about the unknown –- and the known! We are all going through the same trying situation, and doing the best we can. Let’s not judge ourselves too harshly or create unrealistic goals for ourselves.

It may feel like we are on the deck of the Titanic sometimes, but, instead, let’s imagine we are all in lifeboats and heading together for a safer harbor. And, waving from six feet away!

There are a number of worries we could discuss, but let’s focus on one at a time, which is a good coping strategy.   

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Distance Learning

Our ECLC  students are not in the school building for now, and we are all coming together to keep our classes and student contacts as consistent and normal as possible. We all miss one another. But, it has been great to sign on to “Zoom” and see our students!

I have heard some students are shy or uncomfortable using Zoom or being seen on camera.  Don’t force them! Have them listen and answer questions a little off camera for the time being. Practice using Zoom or FaceTime, etc., with friends and family to increase comfort.

Talking About Government Stay-at-Home Orders

  • In general, the (modified) truth is best. They will not be able to take in all that we are hearing. It is anxiety-provoking for us to hear! Plain, short, calm explanations are best, focusing on why we need to stay safe. It is okay to let them know that the situation worries you, too, but set limits on how much frightening information you share.
  • Limit news viewing (for all of us, really!). 
  • Assure them that you have a plan; that you will stick together and deal with it as a family.
  • Explain that everyone is going through this, and that it is very new and uncomfortable and will come to end.
  • A very good explanation of the coronavirus situation is: A Curious Guide for Courageous Kids developed by the Children’s Museum in Verona, Italy. Download the English version. 

Ideas for Staying Happy at Home

Hold a Family Meeting – Have a family meeting, and decide what works for the family. Don’t forget what you and other adults need during the day. Everyone’s situation is different, but it is important to try to preserve time for you and something that makes you feel relaxed or happy. This can be reading time, fitness time, connecting with your friends/family, or simply rest time.

Routines and Schedule – Using an erasable board or a daily calendar is helpful. If your child has a daily schedule of wash, breakfast, school, you should keep to it. Don’t worry if you have to flex the times; it’s staying with a schedule that’s helpful. Do what works for you! 

Stay Active – Make time for activities, such as fitness, crafts or games, outside time, media/TV, study, etc., into the day. This will help prevent the easy slide into sleeping away the day or unlimited social media time. It takes time for our students to get into a positive school-readiness routine –- we don’t want to lose that now. Keeping to a regular bedtime is also helpful.

Telecommuting – If you are working from home, set boundaries about when you are available, and when there is a break time. Create a “chill out” space, with a few floor pillows or a chair, headphones/games/books, in a quiet area, where anyone can go who needs a quiet break.

Social Media – In the past, we been concerned about social media and the online world, but it is a mainstay right now.  And, thankfully we have those means! Keep in touch with friends and supports. For family activities, there are many free resources available. You can tour a museum, play interactive games, watch wildlife cams or do yoga or fitness classes. Teens can connect on FaceTime or Zoom, play interactive games or just chat. (As before, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on what is being done or watched online). It is now our way to “see” one another and keep our social communities strong. 

Health Plans – We’ve all heard the basic requirements about keeping safe during  the coronavirus (hand washing,  social distancing, etc.). Follow them all, and be a good role model for others. Build physical activity into your family’s plans — go to the park or work on the yard. Try some relaxation videos, yoga classes or meditation. Reach out to a trusted friend or family member, if things are getting you down. We at ECLC are also available daily through e-mail.

Articles and Resources:

Take care, everyone!

Allison Weideman,

ECLC of New Jersey Chatham School Psychologist