SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Disney World may not be reopening until mid-July, but a group of Kennedy Elementary students recently took a virtual trip to the ‘most magical place on earth’ from the safety of their home. 

On the evening of May 21, second graders in Kathleen Wharton’s class logged onto their devices and, as a class, toured the famed Orlando theme park. 

“We try to have a very structured academic day and things like this aren’t about academics; they are about providing them with something to do and a chance to cut loose, talk to their friends, and relax,” said Wharton who, along with paraprofessional Nancy Furka, has 18 students this year. 

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Prior to their ‘trip,’ students received an invitation and on the night of, laced up their sneakers, put on Disney attire and headed to Google Meet where Wharton and Furka were waiting to serve as their guides. 

Together, the students – and many of their siblings – ‘gathered’ in front of the castle, sang together, and then began their tour of the Magic Kingdom. A Google Slide virtual map, designed by Wharton, offered them the opportunity to ride the rides and see the sights throughout Tomorrowland, Frontierland, and Adventureland. 

“I was surprised at how many kids had never been to Disney and this provided them with a chance to go,” said Wharton, who has taught at Kennedy for 18 years.  

“I would like to go to Disney World in real life but this made me feel like we were really there,” said 7-year-old Jake Prybella who, along with his twin brother Henry is a student in Wharton’s class. “We did all these activities and stuff that is fun.” 

During their ‘trip,’ students selected where they wanted to go and Wharton launched the links – designed as Mickey hands – that took them to YouTube videos that had them each sitting in the front car of a rollercoaster, strolling down Main Street USA, touring the Haunted Mansion, and more. 

“I loved the Haunted House. It was my favorite part,” Henry Prybella told TAPinto South Plainfield, adding, “I also liked that we got to stay up late.”

At the end of their ‘trip,’ which ran until it was dark here in South Plainfield, students ‘gathered’ together back on Main Street to ‘attend’ the parade and watch the fireworks show. 

“Wherever they wanted to go we went and pretended we were on a trip together. We tried to make it as fun as we could,” said Wharton. 

“It was really fun for them to experience the Disney rides and get to have that time with their friends and their teachers,” said Taryn Prybella, a math teacher at South Plainfield High School whose twins, Henry and Jake, are in the class. ‘We have never been to Disney and they were marveled. It was a great experience for them.”

In addition to the virtual trip to Disney, Wharton’s class has had the opportunity to take part in other interactive and social online events over the past few weeks, including a scavenger hunt and, most recently, a game night. 

“We have been asking the kids what they want to do and are working to come up with things that aren’t educational but provide them the chance to get together and talk,” said Wharton. “That’s what they seem to need – that interaction. That’s what they are missing.”

Parents – and students – agree. 

“I miss my friends and this helps me hang out with them. I get to see them, hear them, and talk to them. I am just happy we can communicate and see each other,” said Henry Prybella. “Thank you. I hope we keep having them.”

According to Jessica Droge, whose son Matthew is a student in the class, Wharton and Furka are going ‘above and beyond’ to make sure that the children are continuing to learn while also coming up with ‘entertaining ways to keep them engaged and interacting.’

“It’s so appreciated, especially at this time when they can’t go out and see their friends and take part in activities like they normally would,” said Droge. “They look forward to these fun nights. He is so excited for his class to get together to do fun things and to see who else is on.”

“These events give them something to look forward to; they know on Thursday at 7 p.m. something fun is going to happen, and I am so appreciative to Mrs. Wharton and Mrs. Furka for setting this up,” said Prybella, adding, “They are so excited to see their friends.”

“It’s wonderful. [They] are taking time out of their own night to spend with their students,” added Michele Melick, whose daughter Gabriella is in Wharton’s class. “They have a great time and it gives the children a chance to socialize and have fun with their friends. It is so important that they have socialization; it’s such a missing piece right now.”

“I truly love my class, and I am just heartbroken for them,” Wharton said. “These kids are just in second grade; that’s still so little. They have lost a lot and these fun nights once a week are the least we can do.”

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