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Haven and Hope

eLearning at the O School

The Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School (O-School), like many organizations, spends a good amount of time thinking about what could go wrong.  We have an Emergency Planning Committee, we do quarterly risk management reports, and we have numerous meetings throughout the week evaluating risk (and potential risk) across departments.

And, like many organizations, we were caught completely off guard by the current risk we are all facing – the COVID-19 pandemic.

The week of March 9, 2020, everything changed. In so many ways, this national disruption was both sudden and unforeseen, and it quickly required us, as an organization, to completely transform our program – while doing everything in our power to maintain the parts of our school that make us so special in the first place.

What follows is the incredible and true story of how the O-School launched an eLearning program without losing our human touch.

Since late February 2020, we had been tracking the Covid-19 outbreak through our medical staff, the University of Chicago (one of our partnering institutions), the State of Illinois, the City of Chicago, and the Center for Disease Control.  By the week of March 9, things were starting to move quickly nation-wide. It was clear that we needed to consider closing (or, at least, seriously reducing census) to help ensure student/staff health and public safety – as we are both a therapeutic day school and a residential treatment center, and the risk to group living facilities was deemed to be especially serious.

By Wednesday, March 11, we decided there would be no school for day school students – starting Thursday, March 12 – and that we would begin sending our residential students home, as well. At that point, we understood that, very soon, we would have to send our full academic and non-residential clinical team (teachers, therapists, case managers, school administrators, support staff, speech/OT…) home to work remotely, using eLearning and eTherapy platforms, for an indefinite period of time.

And, we had two days to make a plan and execute it.

On Thursday, March 12, we orchestrated a half-day, and the Education Staff met in the Art Room to get started on their first task, selecting an eLearning platform. They chose Edmodo – a familiar, user-friendly, Facebook-style platform that allows each student and staff member to have one login, and each class to have a homepage, on which the teacher can post content. With Edmodo, we could basically construct a virtual O-School, with kids going from class to class, communicating with teachers on message boards, and getting/completing assignments. In addition, Edmodo was able to track attendance, grades, and assignments – which was a plus.

On Friday, March 13, which was originally scheduled to be a no school day for in-person parent-teacher conferences (which were obviously canceled), the team pushed on. The Art Room felt like a hive – with collaboration and productivity on overdrive! The instructional staff members worked to get logins for everyone, set up classes online, create student schedules, and add students to their online classes – all under extreme pressure. Additionally, the team of therapists got to work – picking their platform for eTherapy (Zoom), scheduling individual and family sessions, sending links to families, and creating updated procedures around boundaries and confidentiality for online sessions. Finally, behind the scenes, our Student Services Department was flipping all upcoming IEPs and Progress Reviews to online meetings – to ensure that we had a seamless process for treatment teams to plan appropriately for students. Incredibly, none of these meetings were interrupted, which was critical to our ongoing ability to function organizationally and maintain student funding. By the end of the day on Friday, a plan was in place, and we were ready to launch eLearning and eTherapy the week of Monday, March 16.

By Monday, March 16, we had very few students left in the building – and the team was able to finalize eLearning and eTherapy plans, and make sure everything was in place for the first day of eSchool on Tuesday. On Tuesday, March 17, our Education and Therapy Staff (including teachers, case managers, therapists, educational administrators, support staff, speech/OT…) met in the building for the last time before going remote, so they could have the first day of eLearning conducted on-site (this time, with teachers social distancing in their own classrooms), so that any issues could be ironed out before everyone was working from home.

As of Wednesday, March 18, less than a week after we made the decision to temporarily close, the O-School’s educational and non-residential clinical programs were functioning remotely! While we obviously never wanted to be in this position, it was an incredible accomplishment.

Now…we were very lucky to have the team we had heading into this crisis. There were a few things about our team that served us incredibly well as we planned this transition – allowing us to maintain as much of our educational and clinical impact on the students as possible during this time.

  • O-School staff members have a deep and true commitment to the students and value their well-being above all else. They go above and beyond to provide care, support, guidance, and education.
  • O-School staff members are continually considering others when they plan – and understand how to place the student and family at the center when creating lessons and programming.
  • O-School staff members are reflective of the emotional worlds of the school’s students and families, and each other, as colleagues. Emotional intelligence is a professional skill we use every day and, thus, is an extraordinarily well-developed muscle.
  • O-School staff members are deeply intelligent, collaborative, and cooperative people – and have an ability to focus on a group goal and work together to accomplish it.
  • O-School staff members are experts at going beyond logistics – creating and executing plans in a clinically sound manner.
  • O-School staff members understand the importance of taking care of the students and families, but also caring for the program and the larger community – and maintaining the same O-School values we prize when we’re face-to-face.
  • O-School teachers have an amazing ability to differentiate and provide accommodations to help their students learn. While they have never taught on an ePlatform before, they have overcome countless other learning barriers and obstacles with their students. This was just a new barrier.

Don’t get me wrong – we work hard to hire people with all these traits and focus on growing them in training and supervision, but in times of crisis, we realize how valuable these “soft skills” really are.

Of course, things have not been 100% perfect since March 18. As is true for so many schools across the country, transitioning to an ePlatform has been a challenge! For over 100 years, the O-School has prided itself on providing treatment face-to-face, on forming in-person relationships, reading our students’ faces, and being together as a community in good times and bad. Covid-19 has taken all of that from us.

But, we have found that even when facing a pandemic, we have been able to maintain much of what makes our school and organizational culture so unique. We are still child-focused, crafting new goals for our kids that take into account this new world in which we are living. We are still working to maintain a feeling of structure and safety, even if it is over Zoom and Edmodo. We are still being sensitive to families – and planning lessons and student/parent contact in ways that work for families during this extraordinary time. And, of course, we are still focused on learning, evolving, and taking in stakeholder feedback – for example: adding Zoom homeroom and 1:1 meetings with teachers (so we could see our kids’ faces, and they could see us!), paying attention to fluctuations in attendance (and responding with new interventions), and providing more spirit/morale boosting within classes to boost engagement (like a Harry Potter style “House Cup” competition for homerooms).

In many ways, being a clinically focused school has been a huge asset during this time. While many schools across the world are dealing with matters of extreme stress, emotion, and trauma for the first time – we are used to managing these complex issues, even though we are now in a new and surreal context. We understand that, in these uncertain and scary times, it is not just about providing content, it is about providing community. Even if we cannot get 100% attendance (and we can’t!) – we know that we are here for our kids and families. We are present, and we are engaged – which is meaningful in itself.

We have done the math and, when you add up all of our points of contact available from the academic and therapy programs alone, we arrive at 45 points of potential contact each week. And that’s not even counting eResidential activities (dorm events and meetings, phone/Zoom calls, and check-ins), online recreational activities and hang outs (which we call E-Fun), student leadership group eMeetings (Student Council, Students of Color Group, Gender and Sexuality Alliance), and medical/psychiatric eServices, all of which are still available to our students. All in all, we are very proud of what we have accomplished in such a short time.

Like everyone else, we never would have guessed that this is what 2020 had in store for us. But, like so many others, we have shown what we are made of during this time – and proven our resiliency as a program, and our ability to maintain what is best about our school, even during the worst of times.

Author Michelle Zarrilli, M.Ed. serves as Principal for the O-School. To learn more about the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School’s (O-School) residential and day programs, please visit our website. If you have a child or loved one who you believe may benefit from the O-School’s or BWC’s services, please visit our contact page or call our Director of Admissions, Kristin Friesen, at 773-420-2891.

  • Residential treatment
  • eLearning
  • family therapy
  • mental health treatment


Haven and Hope is a destination for professionals, educators, and parents to learn from O-School experts about the issues facing children and adolescents with a variety of social-emotional challenges and/or autism, and how various aspects of the School’s 21st century therapeutic milieu provides a safe haven and a path to hope for those in need.

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