Two local schools that serve special needs students faced a range of challenges this past spring when schools went to remote learning. Teachers and administrators rose to the challenge in many unique ways to help ensure that the kids stayed connected and continued to be active learners. The staff at these schools – Nashua Children’s Home and the RSEC Academy – will apply what they learned and best practices in fall plans to support these students in times where many unknowns still exist.
Nashua Children’s Home
Nashua Children’s Home includes several residential facilities that house more than 40 children aged 6-18 and also provides educational programming to day students. The RSEC Academy middle and high school programs serve and educate students with learning disabilities from its facilities in Amherst. Both schools are members of the NH Private Special Education Association.
Most of the residential youth/children at Nashua Children’s Home attend public schools in their communities, and students placed in the day program are referred and placed through their sending school districts. The residential students have been in quarantine since mid- March, have had limited contact with their families and have been unable to go to their typical off-grounds activity. The day students could no longer come to the school as of mid-March and took part in remote learning for the balance of the school year.
“The kids who live on site have been more fortunate because they had staff come teach on site. For those learning remotely, our teachers were Zooming daily. Each week, teachers would photocopy all of the work and schedules and mail it to the students with return envelopes to send work back,” said Joanne Burdett Dion, director of the Educational Program.
As time passed, Dion and other counselors started making road trips to the students’ houses. They packed up and delivered tote bags with books, iPads and supplies that kids might not have at home, such as colored pencils. With students from as far away as Bennington, Weare, New Ipswich, Concord and Salem, there was a sense of relief seeing teachers in person.
“We have relationships with the kids and their families, so they are not afraid to call if they need help. They can ask for things and the parents will not be judged. We would do our best to get them what they need and that was a stress reliever. A lot of kids were panicking because they usually have end of year summer events like a carnival, but the hardest was the graduation for 8th graders. We made it like Publishers Clearing House with masks. Staff drove to their homes, had balloons and maintained traditions, including giving them lucky bamboo and graduation medal. There were four staff members that drove to locations and did graduation individually for all of the 8th graders. That was my favorite day. The kids were so excited to see everyone,” Dion said.
The residential students faced different challenges while in quarantine. Days became more structured with educational time, STEM challenges, art projects and a sports activity every afternoon. They also had fun. One warm afternoon, they created a slip and slide from a huge sheet of plastic, put dish soap on it, hosed it down and flew down it. Other events included in-house Olympics, a Pride parade and 1980s dress up days. During the entire time, all facilities have remained COVID-19 free.
“Kids struggle and have emotionally difficult moments. Some have been suspended from schools. We don’t suspend them from the program, and we don’t send them home if they are having a hard time. No matter what kind of day they are having, we will stay with them. They know that we will help them work through any issue and will start fresh the next day,” Dion said.
About 10 miles away, staff at the RSEC Academy faced similar challenges of staying connected to kids virtually and maintaining relationships and trust that are essential to effective learning and teaching at the school. While some kids gravitated towards technology, others were more challenged with remote learning and struggled early on.
The RSEC Academy model is built on relationships and being able catch a student at lunch or in a hallway for a face-to-face check in – this has always been crucial. Administrators quickly learned that they needed to get creative to maintain that connectivity in a remote learning scenario.
“We worked hard to support and bolster the teachers in the trenches as they worked to stay connected with their students. We’d have administrators pop into virtual classes to say ‘hi” and “I miss you guys” – it was a nice surprise for the kids. Once we got the news that remote learning was not temporary, we hit the road, dropped off snacks and put together goodie bags and homemade masks. Staff drove to Troy, Londonderry, Derry and Goffstown – they went all over and it took nine hours to get to everyone. They did waves and drop offs and the response was great,” said Janet Reed director of the RSEC Academy.
Using those relationships to recognize how each child learns most effectively was critical – and no two were alike. Some quickly adapted to an online format while others needed additional motivation. They also needed structure, so the teachers decided to run a normal school day virtually that aligned with the in-person experience that was predictable, familiar and routine.
One child had too much time on her hands and needed a hobby. One of the teachers taught this student how to knit via video. The student overcame some occupational therapy issues and did so by knitting a scarf.
“One of our teachers shared that to reward one of the students for her fluency progress, she would learn to make snickerdoodles (the kids favorite). She taught herself to make them and delivered the snickerdoodles to the kids’ home. When she visited, this student wanted her to meet her dog and his mom and also gave her a tour of the treehouse that she had learned a lot about because this student would always talk about it. As a result, this connection became deeper, even in a remote learning environment,” Reed said.
Clubs – such as Dungeons and Dragons – social lunches on Google Meets and movie get togethers also helped maintain connectivity. One of the last days of the school year featured a movie night and popcorn was sent out to the students ahead of time so they could enjoy it during the movie. “On the bright side, the spring brought our community of educators together to do what’s best for the kids. We are blessed to have amazing teachers who are dedicated professionals that kept putting one foot in front of the other,” Reed said.
RSEC plans to have 90% of the student body in the buildings for the fall and complement this with online learning and tools. New activities will be built in for building resilient learners and there will be a great emphasis on safety.
At Nashua Children’s Home, the intent is to return to onsite learning, however, they will offer remote learning if a parent prefers and plans must align with the local school districts. The parents want their kids back in the school and they are working to increase their technology resources and online learning tools, while replicating some of the project-based work that struck a chord with the kids in the spring.
In short, school was and will continue to be a learning experience for kids, families, teachers and administrators as plans continue to flex for the fall. Safety will be the top concern, but best practices that have helped kids with special needs stay engaged and keep learning will be employed to help maintain a high level of engagement.