Navigating how clubs function virtually

Liliana Greyf, Staff Writer

A bouncy castle is simply not the same over Zoom. A virtual hot dog just does not taste as good. While trivial, these details had a great impact on this year’s virtual Relay For Life event. Many of the school’s extracurricular groups, like the Cancer Awareness Club (CAC), have had to find ways to acclimate to a virtual format.
The CAC is not the only club that had to change their original plans for the rest of the school year. Most Upper Division clubs have had to adapt to the online format.
Luke Weber (12), co-president of the CAC, feels lucky that most of the club’s events already happened in the fall and winter. However, the club’s biggest event, Relay for Life, was originally to be held this spring.
The fundraising event, which usually takes place on Alumni Field, had to be modified completely to accommodate the pandemic’s restrictions. “Relay For Life usually brings together hundreds of people on the field,” Weber said. “The idea of being together has become much, much harder.”
This year, Relay took place over an entire week, rather than just one day. The week was filled with various ceremonies, activities, games, and guest speakers, mostly live-streamed through Zoom. While the event was not able to take place as it had originally been planned, the community still came together to ensure a successful experience. “We’re definitely making due with the situation we were given,” Weber said.
While the CAC had to shift a one-time event to the virtual format, the Saturday Morning Tutoring Program (SMTP) has been forced to make a weekly change. SMTP doesn’t have one grand event at the end of the year, co-President Halley Robbins (12) said. Rather, the club members are missing their in-person weekly Saturday meetings.
Since tutoring is a personal partnership, Robbins has found a way for the community to continue even online. The virtual process was hard to implement in the beginning, she said. While she knew that online tutoring was a possibility, Robbins was uncertain of the liabilities and restrictions created by a virtual format, she said. Robbins reached out to the club’s advisor, World Languages Teacher Arni Alvarez and Head of School Tom Kelly to find what she could do.
After some preparation and planning done by leaders of the club, the program runs consistently now. Each week, tutors communicate with their tutees through Zoom, continuing the relationships formed through SMTP.
There have definitely been negative setbacks to the program, Robbins said. The week before school moved online, SMTP’s session was cancelled because of the virus. Since it was cancelled on such short notice, the club members were unable to even have a final in-person session with their tutees. “It was a little sad for me because there wasn’t any sort of ending,” Robbins said. “We didn’t even have a sense of closure. It was cancelled with less than a week’s notice.”
Amanda Mark (10), who has been tutoring her tutee online for the past few weeks, has definitely noticed negative aspects of the online program. Although Mark is still covering the same content with her tutee, it is more challenging to convey information, consequently slowing down the lessons, she said. “The hardest thing is not really being able to see the work that they are doing or to write examples to show them.”
In addition to the disappointment of an abrupt ending, Robbins is saddened by the club’s inability to continue with as many people involved as usual. “An amazing part of the program is the quantity of people that participate,” she said. “The combined number of tutees and tutors in an average week is around 60.” Now, these numbers have decreased significantly, to around 15 tutors per week.
Simply put, the online program has been harder for SMTP participants. “It’s not quite as much fun,” Robbins said. “You don’t get to be in person with everyone, you don’t have the whole community of it since we have to go out into breakout rooms.”
The Parliamentary Debate Team, although forced to cancel their in-person conferences, has been in many ways positively impacted by an online change, Adam Frommer (11) said. Frommer debated at a New York Parliamentary Debate League E-Tournament and attended a larger conference on May 9th and 10th open to kids from all around the country. “Usually, that doesn’t happen, and students stay within their regions. I got to debate a couple teams that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to otherwise,” he said.
This larger conference even allowed for students to attempt a style of debate that they had never come across before. Because students attended the Zoom meetings from various debating regions, the debate was held under a set of rules used on the West Coast. The team had never encountered this style before, and prepared for the event together before it. “It was definitely an interesting experience that we would not have had elsewhere,” Frommer said.
Although debaters faced this exciting change in the conference, there were some unavoidable setbacks, Frommer said. “It was really challenging to sit in front of a computer all day,” he said. “Of course, in person tournaments are tiring too, but I found that there is more of a rush and excitement [when you are physically present]. By the end of the day, I was mentally exhausted.”
Other clubs, such as the school’s environmental awareness club, Green HM, have shifted their meetings to an online format. Green HM co-President Paul Wang (12) was hoping to be more active in the club at the end of the year. “A lot of what we were trying to do was related to initiatives around the school,” he said. The club was hoping to put posters around the school to help students make more well-informed decisions in their daily routines, a plan made impossible by the current situation.
However, the club held a virtual meeting to speak about the virus’ effects on the climate and to discuss their plans for the end of the year. Their most recent gathering was to communicate information about an online Climate Summit, hosted by the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. Some club members attended this event, which was originally supposed to occur in person, through Zoom on Saturday, May 16th, Wang said.
Nina Gaither (11) attended the online summit and enjoyed the quality of the workshops. Although virtual, the speakers were engaging and interesting, she said. Gaither was pleasantly surprised by the organization of the event, but there were definitely some downsides to the virtual format, she said.
“It always helps to meet people and get to know them a bit more, especially to reach out to them in the future,” Gaither said. “I just don’t think that online platforms have the same amount of communication between audience members.” It doesn’t allow for the same types of connections to be made, she said.
Still, Gaither acknowledged the accessibility of an online workshop. “There was a group there from Colorado. I don’t think those people would have come to Fieldston if they have to travel.”
The school’s sports magazine, For The Win, has been able to successfully publish four issues during their time in quarantine. Although the leaders were originally hoping to print six more issues, everyone is happy with the result, Editor-in-Chief Robbie Werdiger (12) said. The online format is undoubtedly more difficult and time consuming, he said. The creative design team originally had access to school computers with the needed programs, which is no longer the case. Now, only one of the club’s members is able to complete all that is needed to produce the magazine.
“Our club members are writing about topics that they wouldn’t have necessarily addressed before,” Werdiger said. Because many sports seasons are cancelled, the club has branched out to discuss other areas of sports such as their favorite players and various predictions for the upcoming seasons.
While the club usually publishes their copies and lets passersby pick up a copy, this is obviously no longer a possibility, Werdiger said. “Sending out the publications in a school-wide email has definitely made a big difference.” Werdiger has been checking to see who opens the file with each issue, and is therefore able to track how many and which people are interested in their work, an ability he has never had before.
Understandably, the current period of isolation has postponed many of the school’s extracurricular plans. However, many student leaders have been pleasantly surprised by the positive outcomes of their online initiatives.
While Weber wouldn’t consider switching CAC to an online format in the future, he is amazed by the hard work he has seen from his peers in recent weeks. “It has really allowed us to see the true colors of some of our members,” he said. “Some of the coordinators have really stepped up during this time, just doing their best to make Relay as great as it can be. That has been just incredible to watch— how some people have taken their responsibilities and kicked into overdrive.”
Similarly, Robbins has been really encouraged by the sheer willingness of club members to participate, even with these new restrictions, she said. “It’s really nice to see that the kids that want to be a part of it and can be a part of it still have the opportunity. With what we can do, this is the best solution we have— and it seems to be working.”
Members of the parliamentary debate team have been exposed to new forms of debate, and Green HM attended a conference with people they would have never otherwise met. There is an undoubtable silver lining to the situation, Weber said.