(Photos courtesy of Lower Eastside Girls Club)

Thousands of New York City high schoolers returned to in-person classes on March 22, nearly a month after middle schoolers did the same. As classrooms reopen, high school sports are finally resuming this month, and after-school programs that transitioned to online learning last year — or that went dark entirely — are also  reevaluating their services. One of those programs, the Lower Eastside Girls Club, began a new session of online classes last month. Now, it plans to resume limited in-person classes in May and full in-person activities by the summer. It will be a return to semi-normality after a year of constant adaptation.

Since 1996, the Girls Club has provided a space for young women and girls in middle and high school to thrive in after-school programs. The organization primarily serves the Lower East Side and East Village, with classes offered at no cost to the girls and their families. Featuring board members such as Rosario Dawson and guests like Colin Kaepernick, the Girls Club aims to provide a well-rounded experience through which young women and girls can work to become the next generation’s leaders. But when the pandemic caused a switch from in-person to online classes, the Girls Club had to make some big changes.

Last March, the Girls Club switched their services to be accessible over Zoom. With a range of opportunities from sewing and design to media and social justice education, new ideas had to be implemented in order to make sure that girls attending the classes would have the same experience online as those previously provided in person. One solution was program kits. Each week, students of a given class received a kit contanting supplies necessary for that week’s activity, allowing them to participate alongside each other over Zoom just as they would in a classroom setting.

Erikka James, a managing director with the Girls Club, says, “We’ve been pretty lucky. We’ve been able to transition our amazing in-person classes to the screen.”

Benefits have even risen from the online curriculum. By adapting to the pandemic, the Girls Club was able to expand the community that could access its resources. Students were no longer restricted geographically, and those who had moved out of the Lower East Side were able to continue taking classes remotely. Despite COVID guidelines, class sizes have actually increased. Enrollment in a culinary class, for example, has grown, since students are using their resources at home and are not bound by the size of the kitchen at the Girls Club site. 

The online programs also allow participation and inclusion to be monitored. “We have girls who are camera shy but we know that they are participating whether it’s via chat or just unmuting themselves,” James explains. “And then there’s some girls who love being on the camera and this is really a shining moment for them as well.”

An offset of online classes and after-school programs, however, is Zoom fatigue. Many students who spend too much time on online calls, where communication isn’t in “real time,” experience exhaustion. James says that the Girls Club has found creative ways to circumvent this in its online offerings.

“We’ve found alternative and fun ways to get the girls engaged,” James says. “We always provide a check-in in some capacity. These are just conversation starters that have nothing to do with school, nothing to do with class, but just kind of warming up the space.”

James also states that the Girls Club understands Zoom fatigue. Any student who is unable to participate in online programs can use the supplies from their program kits to complete projects on their own, and can log in to their online classes when they feel more capable of doing so. Additionally, any students who prefer to participate with their camera off or through the chat are given that choice, and a part-time social worker is able to provide resources for families.

Last March, the Girls Club also started supplying weekly wellness kits that included resources that often aren’t readily accessible to families: program supplies, household supplies, pantry staples, masks, paper towels, and the like. Other support systems included cash infusions to families of the Girls Club and a mass check-in program, in which staffers would call members in order to ask how they could support them during the pandemic. 

In June, the Girls Club prepared to reopen in person for the first time. The building was outfitted with clean filters, touchless water fountains, and COVID safety protocols. This system operated for six weeks over the summer, four days a week, until the school year began. Some classes were held outside, on the rooftop of the Girls Club site as well as in parks. From September to November, a hybrid program was implemented. But in mid-November, New York City’s in-person schooling shut down again, and programs were transitioned back to online only.

As New York reopens, it remains to be seen if the return to in-person schooling will last. In the meantime, Isatou F., a high-school member of the Girls Club, is pleased to see the virtual programs continue. “Even though we’re not able to come into the building yet, we’re still able to interact with people, we still have tons to do, and it’s also a lot of fun.”