Phoenix Center students bring learning home

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NUTLEY, NJ — More than a month into the social distancing lockdown that forced schools across the country to close, students are still going to school via the internet. Non-public schools are no exception, and the Phoenix Center in Nutley has been dealing with the same challenges that Nutley Public Schools has been facing. The special needs school that serves 144 students from eight counties and 64 districts also had to come up with a new plan to serve its students.

“We knew it would probably be longer than the predicted two weeks,” Executive Director Julie Mower said about the closure in a phone interview with the Nutley Journal on April 23. “So we got together to discuss, how do we engage our students to the best of our abilities online? All of our students have IEPs, so how are we going to give them a robust curriculum?”

Mower and the teaching staff at the Phoenix Center had one advantage when making the switch to online-only: the ability to use Google Classroom, which they had already been incorporating into their classrooms.

“We already were a Google school, which thank God we were,” Mower said. “We started encouraging teachers to add activities to their Google classrooms. We already had a good group of teachers who were using it. It was much more supplemental prior to this, but we were able to have those teachers who knew how to do it help with those who didn’t.”

To interact with their students, teachers at the Phoenix Center are having at minimum two face-to-face meetings per day using Google Meet. They’re also connecting with parents multiple times each day and are available throughout school hours to connect, able to adjust to many parents’ work-from-home schedules.

“Many of our students have one-to-one paraprofessionals, and they are logging in and are available the entire day,” Mower said. “They will join in, or just be there on Google Classroom to assist while students are doing activities. It’s been really important to have that.”

Michele Castro’s son, Owen, who is 13, has been going to the Phoenix Center since 2016. She said Owen’s teachers at the school made it easy for him to adjust to the rapid change.

“He’s still seeing the people he would be seeing day to day there,” Castro said in a phone interview with the Nutley Journal on April 23. “It’s not the same as being in school, but the flow is consistent.”

Google Classroom was new to Owen, but Castro said he likes being on a computer and has been sitting next to her while she works from home as he’s talking to his teachers and completing school work.

“He has ADD and ADHD, so sitting on a computer isn’t always great,” she said. “You’ll maybe get five minutes of him paying attention. But they’ve been able to make it so that he’s sitting through a half an hour. He knows, ‘I’m sitting at home, but I still have to listen to my teachers.’”

Having the staff and Owen’s teachers only a phone call or video chat away has made it easier for him to work on classwork while Castro is doing her own work.

“They’ve made it easy for them to see their name and know what they have to do,” she said about the Google Classroom system. “It’s simple enough where if they have the capability, they’re a little more independent. That gives me a bit of a reprieve to focus on what I need to do. As hard as it’s been to be at home, as long as he has that face-to-face interaction, I think it doesn’t matter what his surroundings are.”

It hasn’t been a smooth transition for all students at the Phoenix Center. Some don’t totally understand video chatting, so the number of phone calls being made from the school to homes has risen.

“Some of our students, especially those who are autistic, don’t understand the face to face,” Mower said. “They don’t understand, ‘Why is my teacher in the computer?’ That’s where we’ve been using good old-fashioned phone calls.”

The disruption of normal routines has also been a challenge for Phoenix Center students and families. Special needs students often rely on habit.

“They crave sameness, they crave a schedule,” Mower said. “For the most part, they’ve handled it well. We’re being creative for the students who are having a hard time with the technology. Sometimes that’s putting pen-and-paper activities together and mailing them home. We’re able to make adjustments and meet their needs. Now that teletherapy is permitted in New Jersey, we’re doing that.”

Gov. Phil Murphy has said public schools won’t be allowed to reopen until at least May 15, and Mower said the Phoenix Center will follow state guidelines as well. She doesn’t know what the school day will look like when the building can reopen.

“Are we going to be taking temperatures and following social distancing?” she said. “I’m sure PPE will be very important. We’ll follow what the governor says and see what that looks like. It could be a partial day, where one part of the day is at school and the other part is online. Things change day to day.”

Castro and Owen have gone on car rides to get out of the house, and they’ve driven past the school.

“He knows why we can’t go out, but we’ll drive past and he’ll say he can’t wait to go back to school,” Castro said. “For him, I don’t think it’s going to be a tough transition. I like to take him past there and show him the school is still there, and keep it in his mind that he will go back.”