Candice Anvari staff writer
As a result of the transition to home learning, special education students no longer have the same socialization components that were once available in school. However, By Your Side president senior Madison Heller adapted to the new learning environment by creating Virtual By Your Side for special education students.
According to its mission statement, By Your Side “fosters supportive communities of students with and without special needs, and commits to promoting friendships, social empowerment, and awareness of developmental diversity at all levels of education.” Virtual By Your Side has been meeting weekly on Wednesdays for seven months, including during the summer.
When the pandemic initially hit, Heller was driven to move the club to Zoom because she worried the pandemic would have a negative social impact on special education students.
“By Your Side plays such an important role in all of our lives. The virtual aspect of this club was born out of fear and continuity because, for students with severe special needs, normalcy and structure is really important in their lives. Amid COVID, that was all destroyed,” Heller said. “I thought it was my duty to provide some sense of normalcy for them once a week so they can see kids that they know well.”
Once Heller prepared her virtual plan, the club experienced a “seamless transition” to Zoom. Heller noticed that the administration, the club members and the special education students’ parents were all “adamant” to get the club up and running for the students.
“We didn’t encounter any problems. I am very grateful for the support from all fronts. It was really an all hands on deck effort because you can’t have By Your Side without the mainstream [general education] students. You can’t have By Your Side without the special ed students. Everyone needed to be involved and dedicated,” Heller said.
Especially amid the pandemic, Heller believes that having people to lean on for support is “extremely” important.
“What I think makes By Your Side unique and special is that, together, mainstream and special education students teach one another and help each other mutually grow,” Heller said. “We’re living in such unprecedented times, and I think coming together and seeing one another across differences is truly something beautiful to see. That’s the heart of the virtual program.”
Before Heller implemented the virtual program, she received encouragement from the parents who knew how important the club was to their children.
“Parents told me that it was very difficult for their children to be home all day because special needs kids can be very active, they like to get out, they have different appointments and some have very busy schedules,” Heller said. “I sensed the most genuine and encouraging feedback from the parents who told me how much this club has helped their children during these difficult times.”
As a special education student, junior Liza Bell “loves” the club.
“It’s super fun and I get to see all my friends. I have a lot of fun when I see my friends,” Bell said.
The club not only plays an important role in the lives of special needs students, but also in the lives of the mainstream students. Senior Aidan Dveirin has participated in the club since his freshman year. He developed “touching” friendships with many students through the club.
“My favorite experiences in By Your Side are always just seeing the smile on the students faces when I make a joke or just compliment them. It makes me happy to see them in their element and just enjoying themselves,” Dveirin said. “In Virtual By Your Side, my favorite memory is definitely dancing the macarena. At the end of every Virtual By Your Side meeting, we all dance together to the macarena. It’s fun and light-hearted and just leaves everyone in a good mood.”
Speech and language pathologist Eileen Katz is the club’s sponsor. When the club transitioned to Zoom, she observed many positive reactions among all members of the club.
“I can visibly see smiles and excitement on the faces of both the special ed and general ed students during By Your Side meetings. All of the students appear genuinely happy to be with each other,” Katz said.
In addition to creating a positive space for the club members, Heller’s main goal for this year is to give the students something to always look forward to.
“I’m grateful that By Your Side has filled the empty void of social interaction. For a lot of kids, it’s been the one thing that they have each week that they get really excited about,” Heller said. “I think that’s so important in everyone’s lives. Having something to look forward to and having some outlet to feel safe is what I think this club can always provide.”