The calls coming in from parents became more urgent, more pleading. In her 16 years with children’s programs at the Jewish Community Center of MetroWest, Dianne Lucas thought she had heard every sort of concern from mothers and fathers. But this time the tone and context were different. The messages were pandemic-fueled and centered on their children’s listlessness, their isolation, the shortcomings of remote learning, and, not inconsequentially, the strain and dislocation it was causing the adults, especially those from one-earner households.
Ms. Lucas and her colleagues reacted with agility and purpose. Working very quickly, they completely reimagined and ramped up the after-school Kids Club into an all-day, all-encompassing educational and socialization experience that wouldn’t make the pandemic go away but would help smooth some of its rough edges for these kindergartners to fifth-graders. It also would allow their parents to feel much less stress as they worked, knowing that their children were in an atmosphere of caring and creativity.
Ms. Lucas and her staff brainstormed to “modify for a new world,” as they put it. This meant adding two coordinators so that an all-day program would keep student-instructor ratios low while maintaining high enthusiasm and academic support, all the while factoring in the latest and sometimes confusing covid health directives from the federal CDC and state authorities.
“We are excited at the success of our Kids Club program,” Ms. Lucas said. “The children are focused and engaged in their schoolwork, and they also have significant opportunities for socialization and fun through our enrichment electives. We are providing structure and support in a safe and nurturing environment while giving parents some respite and the ability to work. Our lead staff members are all college graduates who have significant experience working with children.”
Kids Club at the J accepts pupils for virtual learning from the West Orange, Livingston, and South Orange/Maplewood school districts. With a maximum of 10 children per class, spaced seven to nine feet apart and masked, instructors provide academic support in English, math, science, and social studies. Children are assigned specific classes by district, and bring computers for instruction in the morning. After lunch, activities include ceramics, fitness, cooking, and yoga. The schedule runs four days a week, nine hours a day. Special programs help spice the curriculum, such as a recent pajama party and movie screening at the J’s Maurice Levin Theater.
“Our Kids Club is extremely diverse,” Ms. Lucas said. “We have children and staff from all different backgrounds. My own daughter, Mckayla, is a first-grader here.”
Among program tweaks both large and small brought on by covid was upgrading the WiFi, since computers now play such a major role in the daily routine. Additionally, the J also improved its HVAC system with the installation of a plasma air ionizer, which puts positive and negative charges into the duct flow to eliminate or neutralize viruses and bacteria. When one of the Kids Club students did test positive for covid, the affected class quarantined and observed all health protocols. Attendance resumed, and there hasn’t been a reported case since.
Parents are delighted with the results of the vigilance and attention to detail.
“My child comes home from Kids Club asking to return immediately,” Caroline Harris of West Orange said. “He is bonding with the instructors and classmates, even with all of the social distancing and masking precautions in place. As a parent, I have total confidence in Dianne Lucas and her incredibly engaged and caring staff. They have turned a tough situation for parents into a positive and safe experience. They’re lifesavers!”
“We are so thrilled that we chose to send our girls to the JCC Kids Club during these uncertain times,” J’amie Cohen of West Orange said. “Dianne Lucas has a heart of gold. She goes above and beyond to make sure that our kids and her staff are safe, healthy, and well. Our children have been looked after by a tremendous staff who have helped facilitate their online learning experience. We truly could not be more grateful.”
And as the Kids Club rose to the challenge, so did the other major JCC component for youngsters, the Early Childhood Center, a bubble for infants to 5-year-olds. “After returning to the ECC in this new environment, the health and well-being of children and staff was utmost in our months of planning,” the center’s director, Leslie Fleischman of Scotch Plains, said. “Our staggered drop off and pick-up times still preserve opportunities for warm greetings. Our classroom sizes are small and children work in pods, always masked, and with plenty of outdoor time. They are quite happy to be at their ECC among friends. We continue to monitor the efficiency and safety of our protocols daily, always with an eye on providing an atmosphere of joy.
“Teachers and children collaborate. We listen, observe, and document their interests to engage them in what they are curious about,” Ms. Fleischman continued. “By weaving Jewish traditions and values into their everyday life and learning, through our strong community and family events, we embrace all cultures and families, create parent partnerships, and cultivate lifelong family friendships. Ours is a place where you can feel great about being yourself.”
The ECC reacted to a covid-consumed universe by adding extra personnel to eliminate the need for outside substitutes. Now every class has a consistent roster of teacher and co-teacher and a team of daily dedicated floating staff. Class size also has trended lower, providing a calm learning environment. School days run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and part-time classes are offered until 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 pm.
Ms. Fleischman reported that the ECC has had two positive tests for covid and in each case followed all protocols and quarantine requirements. “We got past them quickly,” she said.
“The children really have been good and have no never-minds when it comes to wearing masks. I keep using the word joy when I refer to them. Normalcy and joy are what the ECC provides them with no matter what’s going on in the world. On the same day, we can have a music Shabbat, yoga outside — using Zoom if it’s too cold — and dancing in every class.”
Teacher Toni Silver of Millburn feels “very comfortable and confident coming to work every day. I am so proud of my school and all they are doing to keep us safe. The children arrive happy and ready for learning and fun with their classmates.” And from parent Rebecca Wood of West Orange: “Thank you for being able to pivot with each changing day. You keep us informed without alarm. Thank you for leading us with such joy and care. The JCC is such a cornerstone in getting our entire family through these times.”