Tag Archives: COVID-19

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!

Tips for Celebrating a Safe Halloween

Don’t be scared to celebrate Halloween. As with most events taking place in 2020, Halloween can happen in-person or in a more virtual setting.

How you choose to celebrate likely depends on your individual circumstances, your town’s regulations and your overall comfort level.

Here are a few suggestions to help make it a more enjoyable experience!

In-Person Trick-or-Treating Tips: 

  • Wear a mask, if you are venturing out.
  • Plan ahead, and travel the routes or houses you plan to visit ahead of time.
  • Make a simple “map” of your route to help serve as a visual reminder and set expectations.
  • Be mindful of Halloween decorations that make noises or have visuals effects that may be triggering to your child’s sensory issues.
  • Highlight the importance of continuing to keep hands clean and maintain social distance from others when out in the neighborhood.

Virtual Celebration Ideas:

  • Hold a virtual Halloween party with a family and friends with everyone in costumes.
  • Go “trick-or-treating” in your own house; move from room to room with candy and treats at each doorway.
  • Plan to watch Halloween movies, and let each family member pick a favorite film. 
  • Pile into the car, and go for a tour of nearby homes that are decorated for Halloween.

Ho-Ho-Kus School Social Worker Cynthia Chaanine & Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)  Matthew Kuzdral

Learn more at www.eclcofnj.org.