When a school day of lessons, tests and quizzes is replaced by a fun day of games, dancing and teamwork, students can’t help but enjoy themselves. But whether they know it or not, they are also learning, improving their mental health and building their social and emotional skills.

Linden Public Schools gave students and staff this opportunity with the district’s first “SELebration Day,” allowing everyone to take a break from the daily grind, have fun and reduce stress in the middle of a difficult school year.

The district’s special observation on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, put the focus on social emotional learning  for students and staff. Formal instruction of the curriculum was suspended, and teachers and staff members thought up creative ways for students to relax, connect with one another and focus on their own mental well-being.

“I was so happy with the way our SELebration Day went,” said Superintendent Dr. Marnie Hazelton, who introduced the idea to the district. “I went to a number of our schools, and what I saw delighted me. Students were engaged and learning, but in ways that gave them creative outlets to build camaraderie and let their hair down. Our students and staff needed a break from the daily stressors that have been so difficult to deal with during this very challenging school year.”

Student stress levels have been high throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as they deal with virtual learning, illnesses within their families, daily safety protocols and not seeing friends. Educators have reported feeling overwhelmed by having to learn new ways of teaching as they are tasked with protecting their students and enforcing healthy protocols and mandates, while they themselves are worried about contracting the virus.

These are some of the factors that led Linden Public Schools to try to give everyone a day of relief.

Board of Education President Carlos A. Rivas stopped by School No. 10 while a reporter from ABC7 in New York visited to do a feature story on the district’s special day.

“It was wonderful to see our students have such a good time together in their classes playing games, making art, and even putting on a small play,” Rivas said. “I think SELebration Day was something everyone needed to recharge their batteries in the middle of a very difficult school year for everyone. I’m very happy that our school district here in Linden puts the mental health and happiness of our staff and students among our top priorities.”

Among the activities at the schools were staff raffles, costume and school spirit contests, arts and crafts, yoga, scavenger hunts, art projects, karaoke, indoor golf, dancing, stuffed “snowball” fights, visits with Santa, indoor bowling, cornhole, and board and card games including bingo, Uno,  Jenga, checkers, chess and Pictionary.

Leilani Nicholson, a fifth grader at School No. 4, said the schoolwide dance breaks were her favorite part.

“It brought us out of the classroom, and we were able to have fun with our friends who we don’t normally see,” she said. “It was also fun to see the teachers dancing with us. It was a nice break.”

Debra Heffernan’s graphic design class at Linden High School held a contest in the week before SELebration Day to come up with a logo for the special event. The winning team was made up of seniors Michael Grannillo, Peter Janovcik and Alex Lopez.

“The SELebration Day at Linden High School provided a unique opportunity for students and staff to bond and lay down the burden of stress for just one day,” said LHS Principal Yelena Horré. “Throughout the school, students and teachers participated in spirited games of cornhole, revisited simpler childhood days through play and practiced relaxation through meditation. It was a much-needed reset for all.”

The district plans to hold SELebration Day once a month through the end of the school year. And that’s fine with School No. 8 fifth-grader Aiden Valdez.

“It was a fun and joyful day,” he said. “With COVID being around and school feeling different, it was finally a day where we felt normal again and could enjoy time with our friends doing different activities. Everyone seemed to be really happy!”

School No. 4 Principal Dr. Suzanne Olivero said she has seen firsthand the awful impact the pandemic has had on children as a school leader — and as a parent.

“Our students and staff have demonstrated great flexibility and perseverance as we navigated a new mode of instruction and learning,” she said. “The LPS SELebration gave everyone the opportunity to detach from typical school routines and connect with each other on another level. Being able to witness the joy and sense of community that emanated throughout our building was indescribable.”

School No. 8 Principal Michelle Rodriguez said she was grateful for SELebration Day.

“It helped to ease the stressors because it is purposely designed to allow us to stop, have some good old fun, and get to know each other,” she said. “It allowed us to engage with students and for them to engage with each other in a way that typically, pre-COVID, just happens in the classroom during groupwork, clubs and recess. It gave me a chance to put some life back into the school.

Tichina Smith, a parent of a third-grade student at School No. 4, said her child couldn’t wait to get to school on SELebration Day.

“I was pleased to see my child excited about going to school that day,” she said. “She didn’t know what was going to happen that day, but there was just excitement about the opportunity to connect with classmates and have fun.”

Stephanie Feuerschwenger, president of the School No. 8 PTA, said her members enjoyed helping to make SELebration Day a success.

“The kids and staff all had such a great day partaking in the fun-filled activities that were being held,” she said.

Social-emotional learning is the process through which all students and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships and make responsible and caring decisions.

SEL is a lifelong process on how to better understand ourselves, connect with others, work together to achieve goals, and support our community.

Myra Bernard, a fifth grader at School No. 4, probably wasn’t thinking about all that when she was enjoying the school’s escape room, which she called the highlight of SELebration Day.

“We got to play a lot of games, which we don’t typically do,” she said. “We work very hard, but on SELebration Day, we were able to just relax with our friends in school.”

Gary Miller is the communication coordinator for Linden Public Schools in Union County.