To support and guide students, teachers and staff through a difficult and unprecedented school year, The Cove School, an independent K-12 school in Northbrook for students with complex learning disabilities, created a theme of “Stronger Together.” This catchphrase remains a mantra for all members of the Cove community to work together to continue to provide in-person learning for a population of students who really benefit from learning in the classroom. It also ensures that remote learning continues to provide appropriate accommodations for students who need to stay at home.
The commitment underscores Cove’s mission to provide personalized individual education and life strategies for students with complex learning needs.
“Our emphasis on community really speaks to the impetus and fire underneath all of us to stay vigilant,” says Alex Laube, high school principal at Cove. “We recognize that this is something our students need. We did an amazing job responding in the spring to create an environment that works for our school because if there was a chance we would be able to return in person, we were going to take that. Academically and socially, our students benefit from being here.”
Preparations started early
Cove began this commitment early by using the initial imposed shutdown in March 2020 to make significant changes to the physical environment where students learn. With a heavy focus on the health and safety of the community, Cove consulted with an architecture firm to improve facility components to provide physical safety for a strong return. All communal furniture was removed and larger tables were replaced with Marvel Focus Desks, which are adjustable sit-stand desks designed specifically for students with special needs, according to Dr. Sally Sover, executive director of Cove.
Improvements were also made to the bathroom facilities to allow for touchless hand washing and drying, and the nurse’s office received antiviral surfaces. Hand sanitizer stations were installed and air ionization and filtration were strengthened throughout the building. Staff met with students and parents individually prior to the start of school to re-acquaint them with the physical environment and reconnect after the long closure.
“The second key piece is our mental health program. It’s something we focus on here always, but it took on a stronger role,” Sover says. The school hired an additional clinical psychologist and social worker and made mental health support available to families and staff during the summer to stay connected. All of these efforts were made with mindful longer-term goals in mind.
“I’m so very proud of our community because we come together, no matter what,” Sover says. “It’s amazing the ways this particular community comes together for each other.”
After a strong fall opening with well-supported in-person and remote learning advancing students toward their academic and development goals, Cove responded mindfully to public health guidelines and imposed an adaptive pause after the Thanksgiving break. Cove students returned to the school in early January and were able to do so because families, students, teachers and staff made the commitment to prioritize the safety of the entire school.
“Everyone really had to think about travel and be careful about gatherings so that we could, as a community of 165 students and 110-plus staff, make the decision to return to school,” explains Regina Aniolowski, elementary and junior high principal at Cove. “Some didn’t see their families so they could be here for our students and we are so grateful for those sacrifices. We are lucky to have them in the community.”
A percentage of Cove students have medical needs that preclude them from risking exposure to COVID-19, so they have opted to continue learning from home. “For many, it was not even a choice, and the same goes for our incredibly dedicated staff of seasoned educators and younger teachers with medical conditions,” Laube says.
Leadership at Cove is working hard to provide opportunities for students to connect, albeit in a modified way for safety. “During regular times, Cove hallways are like Grand Central Station,” Aniolowski says, describing the sounds of choir voices and basketball players yelling in the gym. “Our goal is to give back to them and give them those opportunities they can’t get elsewhere. At Cove, our students are leads in the play and stars on the basketball court — roles they wouldn’t necessarily get at their home schools.”
Instead of the annual much-loved variety show, Cove students are encouraged to submit videos to include in the early February “VarieTV” show and pizza fundraiser. “We’ll all sit at home and watch and eat pizza and bring the community back. It’s not exactly the same, but we’re looking forward to it,” Aniolowski says.
As a point of pride, Aniolowski and Laube are excited to reopen afterschool programs. Virtual fitness, chess, SAT prep, Cove Kids Care, gaming — and, for the first time, a community-focused gender and sexuality alliance group — are just a few of the available clubs for students. The organizations are important, not just for students to explore interests, but for them to see friends in different “pods” they haven’t been able to see for months.
“Limiting in-person interactions is astronomically beneficial for health and safety and for ease of contract tracing at the school,” explains Laube. “But it also means kids are more isolated. They don’t have those in-depth opportunities to form or foster relationships, so our afterschool opportunities are huge for connection across grades, pods and units.”
Just look to the kids
When Laube and Aniolowski start feeling the frustration of wearing masks and maintaining safe distances, they take cues from the students, who they say have a surprising amount of resilience.
“It just blows my mind. We adults have negative feelings about restrictions and stress about getting sick. The kids may have these feelings too, but they come into school with masks on and eyes smiling,” Aniolowski says. “It’s remarkable. I peek into a classroom and see the strength and courage to not only continue to overcome obstacles already in their way, but add all this and yet they are still strong and fighting and working.”
In fact, the pandemic restrictions may have provided a welcome wakeup call to teens who naturally become complacent about school, according to Laube.
“We have had high school students with attendance problems, and we went remote in the spring and now they have the option to be here, and they are here every day, with masks on,” he says. “Attendance has never been better.”