As I write this at the end of July 2020, New Jersey is in a phenomenal place controlling the spread and devastation of COVID-19. Recent outbreaks have been contained, return from nearly every state outside of the Northeast requires testing and a two-week self-quarantine period, and there is actually talk about returning safely to school in September, keeping in mind that the youngest students and the disabled students are among the most at-risk for regression and are being treated as such. We happen to check the boxes for both young and disabled and are grateful for the power and grace pouring into the process of developing a plan that provides safety, is mindful, and that uses common sense.
When we started remote learning in March, everything was blurry. Teachers and therapists wanted to continue their instruction, and parents wanted to be compliant, but the difficulty, if not impossibility, of reaching a young child through a computer screen became clear pretty early on. And so we became complacent—a little here, a little there, creative approaches to goals, and only a younger sibling for a classmate….and lunch table friend…and walking buddy. Not ideal.
Our teachers were given about a week and a half at the end of the regular school year to breathe and strategize how to make extended school year more successful than the questionable experience of the previous three months. In my mind, they delivered. Hope had PT for the first time since March, a therapy she remained engaged in for the entire half-hour session every week. She continued yoga as the most accessible form of virtual OT. Her new teacher even met with her one-on-one, every single day, and worked with me to coordinate printouts and other materials. Whereas the school itself did a phenomenal job with these four weeks, the district failed us when they assigned a new speech therapist—perhaps Hope’s most vital therapy—who I reported twice to our case manager and who let us down for five out of six sessions until I finally called it off. We have past experience to draw on in order to fill the gaps between academic instruction and between therapy sessions, but the problem is that we’ve been making educated guesses along the way and haven’t been measuring her progress against her IEP goals. Those will need to be addressed and updated in September.
While most of our time home during the pandemic has been flooded with good intentions and expertise, there is little evidence-based guidance to draw from during what we all know is this “unprecedented time.” But it wasn’t fair to ask Hope to sit in front of a computer for an hour. And it wasn’t fair to the teacher to view her students through the tunnel of a computer camera with no ability to follow Hope around the room, difficulty making out items she was holding, and having to incorporate the new skill of “hold it up and show me” on the fly to the day’s lesson plans. There were so many instances when Hope was doing what she was told or answering questions she’d been asked, but it was up to me to share how many fingers Hope was showing in her lap, which community helper she was identifying on the tabletop just out of view, or what word she’d said so quietly that the computer microphone didn’t pick it up. I’m used to being Hope’s translator, but since remote learning began I’ve been honing my skills as her cameraman as well.
Now it’s our turn to breathe and regroup as we prepare as best we can for this unpredictable upcoming school year. I’ve determined that virtual learning is synonymous with zero FAPE (free appropriate public education) for Hope, so planning for what my role will look like and what we will need from her school should her classroom, the school, or public schools state-wide shut down in-person learning again, will be a major piece of the puzzle.