Eliana Goldstein’s seventh birthday didn’t exactly go as planned: her birthday is March 13, the day COVID-19 canceled school.
“I would try to stop it, because I don’t like it,” she said when asked what she wanted to tell the virus. “It happened on my birthday.”
Indeed, schools across the region closed their doors to students March 13 – a Friday – and didn’t open for the rests of the school year. But Eliana and many of her classmates are back in class these days – albeit on schedules and in environments unlike anything students have known. A few fortunate students have the benefit of spending their afternoons at the new Adeline Wright-Graham Boys and Girls Club constructed between Mont Pleasant Middle School and Pleasant Valley Elementary School and opened to much fanfare in December and January – a new center equipped with an enormous light-filled gymnasium, a Proctors-designed theater room, a commercial kitchen and more.
In the early days of the pandemic, the center supported the regional emergency response. Government officials, nonprofit organizations and volunteers across the region used the space to field emergency calls, distribute meals and supplies and provide a large space to do so in the midst of a pandemic. The center serves as a public testing site on Mondays and plans to host vaccination services too, said Shane Bargy, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Schenectady.
Boys and Girls Club sites in Schenectady County reopened this school year with limited capacities and waiting lists at some locales. The program has shifted its approach this year, opening its doors earlier than in previous years since Schenectady primary grade students are let out of school before lunch, and working with students who have to log on to virtual classes after lunch. Students start filing in to the clubhouses at 11:30 a.m. each day, with kids getting dropped off by school bus or parents. The first part of the day, the kids eat lunch and then log in to virtual classes. Then they shift to traditional Boys and Girls Club programming, lots of play, games and activities. But those activities are also limited by health precautions.
Kids at the new Boys and Girls Club center on Thursday said they saw benefits in some of the changes to their education, ranging from the benefits of more personal space in classrooms to some of the game-based online learning schools are using. But they also highlighted the challenges of getting motivated to participate in online learning, from managing daily technical problems to adapting to limited social interactions.
“Something hard about it is you have to do it online, and I like to do it in person,” Eliana said of virtual school. She said she does better when she and her teacher are together.
Some of the kids alluded to the distractions of trying to learn at home, and many of them jumped between browser tabs as they worked on school work.
“I’ve never done virtual before,” said 9-year-old Nicolas Valentine, a fourth grader. “I just want to keep playing with my Legos and games.”
Nicolas’ classmate Rylan Kessler was even more down on virtual learning.
“It’s just too hard with all the technology,” he said. “It’s because it does different things… I don’t like it if the internet is out. If you do it in school you don’t have to have wifi.”
“I was trying to watch a video on the bus, but I only had one bar,” Nicolas said.
The technical difficulties facing students, parents and teachers relying on virtual learning were readily apparent at the center. The student schedules differ from kid to kid and room to room at the center. Some students have classes that start at 1:10 p.m., while other don’t start until 1:40 p.m. Links sometimes fail.
“I can’t get in,” said Amariya Garcia as she tried to log in for one of her virtual classes.
“Why?” asked one of the program assistants.
“I don’t know why,” Amariya answered back.
But the kids are also resilient and capable of adapting to the changes around them, members of the Boys and Girls Club staff said.
“They enjoy themselves,” said Kimberly Tillman, one of around a dozen program assistants who oversee groups of kids at the new center. “They try to make the best of it.”
Anastasia Witherspoon, a first grader at Brighter Choice Charter for Girls, whose older siblings were at the Boys and Girls Club, said she understood that she and her classmates had to wear masks to stay safe and was accepting of the changes at school.
“Sometimes I stay at home and learn and sometimes I go to school and learn in real life,” she said.
She prefers school in real life. “Because when I am online I have to sit in the chair every day.”
Did she miss her friends? “That’s another thing,” she said.
The Boys and Girls Club offers kids extended social opportunities, but precautions still abound. Temperature checks and mask-wearing procedures mirror those found in the schools. The kids separate into home room and stay in the same group of no more than 10 kids throughout the day, minimizing the potential of widespread interactions. One person at the Rotterdam center tested positive for COVID-19, Bargy said, but the number of kids asked to quarantine was limited to a handful because of the precautions.
The massive new center, built with a capacity of 400, welcomes around 60 kids each day. Starting at the end of the month, another 40 secondary-grade students will start up as part of a grant-funded afterschool program the Boys and Girls Club managed at the high school and middle schools. The program has been all virtual but is scheduled to start running each day at the new Boys and Girls Club center by the end of the month, Bargy said.
“I can’t tell you how hard it has been for us to have this brand new building, it can hold 200, 300 kids, and have to limit it,” Bargy said.
Maria Centor, the area director in charge of overseeing the Schenectady County Boys and Girls Club’s different facilities and programs, said the program has had to shift to play more roles for kids than even before. But she also said the role they played was more important than ever before.
“This is what we are: teachers, tutors, friends,” she said. “Just trying to help.”