While some North Jersey families are filing lawsuits and holding rallies to get schools to reopen, others are getting creative. I spoke to one parent, Aimee. who, with her husband Peter, partnered with three local families in South Orange-Maplewood to create a pod so their children can learn side-by-side in a safe environment. They’ve dubbed their learning space “Garage School University.” Here is our (lightly edited) conversation.
Aimee, tell me why you transformed your garage into a classroom.
We created “Garage School University”—as we like to call it — in August last year as there were no plans for the schools in our district to open anytime soon. Several of our friends and neighbors were in a panic as most of the parents work full time and knew they could not help their kids with virtual school. So we created a pod with a handful of families we knew. We all agreed on health and safety protocols to make sure that everyone would stay well so we could keep the pod together. We needed a safe place for the kids to gather, clean with good ventilation. Ultimately we chose our garage as it had electricity and the space is large and open.
We needed another girl to round out the group as there were 5 boys and only one girl; so we posted to SoMa school pods on FB and found another girl to round out our pod.
How did everyone end up at your house?
We volunteered our garage because it had electricity. Preparing the garage was a huge undertaking! My husband and I cleaned out the space, power-washed it, painted it, put up bead board, got some fans, space heaters and air-purifiers, and replaced the doors with a glass slider. It’s a really amazing space now — very kid-friendly!
What do the days look like at Garage School University?
One family in the pod has an au pair and as a group we paid her to supervise the children in the mornings when they’re on their devices and having remote instruction from their individual teachers. Then we found an amazing art teacher, who is here from 12-4, four afternoons a week, and has done everything with them from helping them with homework to building snow forts and ice sculptures, playing in the garden, painting murals, and having them write, direct, build sets for and star in a garage school movie.
Can you tell me more about how the kids are doing emotionally?
It’s been really hard on our kids, to be honest. At one point they started getting into fights, much like siblings do! Virtual school is tough on kids and they really miss seeing other friends at school. Some of the kids have fallen behind academically. We realize now that our son will need extra help after this year so we will need tutors to try to catch up.
How has the communication been with the school district?
It seems like there is a huge divide between the school district and the teachers’ union. The district keeps setting dates to open, only to close again within a week of opening, or just skipping the deadlines. We typically get a call on Friday evenings to keep us updated on the next openings. Just last Friday we got a call that kindergarten-2nd grade is starting hybrid instruction on MONDAY!
I know the teachers are very upset; they want everyone vaccinated before they return to classrooms. And I side with them — no one should go back if it’s not safe. But our kids are suffering. Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is. Westfield [a nearby district] is open, so what’s different there? Unfortunately, I’m exhausted following the day-to-day of when the schools will reopen.
Even before the pandemic, there were alot of people from New York City flooding the real estate market. [South Orange-Maplewood is a short commute to Manhattan.] The district was supposed to start major renovations of all district schools — my son’s school was built in 1928! There are lots of problems there that were going to be fixed. But the district hasn’t been able to get started.
How are other South Orange-Maplewood families coping who don’t have access to Garage School University?
I know that many people have turned to private schools [with in-school instruction] and just given up on the district. I have heard private schools now have huge waiting lists!
There was even talk among parents of starting their own private school, just to get their children through this crisis. Families have jobs — they can’t just stay home. I’ve heard parents say, “if they just tell us what they need to open up for in-person learning, we’ll get it for them, we’ll pay for it. Tell us what you need and we’ll make it happen.” It’s really a tragedy that the schools could not be brought up to code so the kids could go back to school.
Do you think your son will go back to school this year?
I think it’s a possibility if all adults are vaccinated and the district is in compliance with all the health criteria. We want him to go back. He needs to go back, he needs the academic support and the socialization. We’ll all be better off.