SARASOTA, Fla. – Luther Smith doesn’t say much, but his teachers know that COVID-19 is stressing him out.
The 16-year-old student at Oak Park, Sarasota’s school for children with disabilities, has autism and is nonverbal, so he uses a touch-screen tablet to communicate. The device gives him a voice, allowing him to tap out answers to questions by clicking on pictures and symbols.
And the technology gives his teachers a better understanding of what he’s thinking as he takes in the array of changes that a pandemic has brought to his world.
“The general sense is that he just wants things to be normal,” said his teacher, Jayson Rawley. “There’s this feeling of looming anxiety that we have all kind of felt, and just because he is nonverbal doesn’t mean he isn’t having the same feelings that we are.”
Since schools in Sarasota County reopened on Aug. 31, students have had to acclimate to new protocols. Mask mandates, one-way hallways and desk dividers are now just a part of the school routine, like fire drills or chicken nuggets in the cafeteria.
At Oak Park, the challenge of reopening is magnified. Many of Luther’s classmates are also nonverbal. Some are medically fragile and more prone to the virus. Other students with emotional-behavioral disorders are adjusting to new rules that can irritate even the most even-keeled adult. And others just crave hugs from their teachers.
On a recent school day, Jane Jansson, a paraprofessional at the school, led a group of students into the cafeteria. Two boys clung to her elbows, and two more trailed close behind her. As she took a 30-second break while her sidekicks got breakfast, she talked about how teaching children with autism had changed because of the virus.
“It’s been hard. It’s really been hard. They don’t understand. We are trying to teach them to be social, but with the virus we have to be separate,” she said. “Plus having the mask, being autistic, they don’t have a good ability at reading the face, and this messes it up even more.”
But if anyone is up for dealing with unexpected challenges, it is the students and staff at Oak Park, said Principal Jamie Lowicz. A pandemic makes life tougher, but having to use a wheelchair or not being able to talk has already toughened up these kids.
“They have had challenges their whole life, so this is just something else that has to be overcome and dealt with and faced,” Lowicz said. “Our kids are the champions when it comes to adversity … that makes a virus look fairly simple. It’s a challenge for everybody, but they are masterful at this.”
NEW SAFETY MEASURES
Lowicz gathered a team of staff members over the summer to figure out how to reopen school and keep their students safe.
They knew that some of the new rules that leaders at traditional schools have mandated were simply impossible at Oak Park. Teachers can’t socially distance themselves from students who need help, and they knew many children would struggle with mask mandates.
“What’s the safest way that we can do this, knowing our population, knowing that there are special needs that exist that are unlike anywhere else in the district?” Lowicz said they asked themselves.
They prepared for the year by restructuring parts of the school day, trying to maintain as much student independence as possible. Students at Oak Park learn how to make decisions and advocate for themselves through simple routines like picking out their food in the cafeteria. School leaders tried to keep in mind how any new mandates would affect students’ development.
“Everything we do here, it is essential it be transferrable to other environments,” Lowicz said.
Many of the new measures are not that different from what every school is doing. One-way hallways, signs reminding students to stay six feet apart and mask requirements are all in place, and the staff spent the first four weeks of school focused on ingraining these new rules into Oak Park culture, Lowicz said.
Students who have sensory issues and are uncomfortable wearing a mask are building up to that, by first wearing a face shield or something more comfortable.
In order to create more outdoor spaces where students can take a break from wearing their masks, the school purchased 15 wheelchair-accessible picnic tables to go in the outdoor courtyard adjoining each classroom.
‘I DON’T WANT TO BE STUCK AT HOME'
Recently, when workers installed the new picnic table next to Savannah Jones’ classroom, the 16-year-old could not contain her excitement. Savannah uses a wheelchair, and the new picnic table allows her to eat lunch next to Luther, her best friend in the class who uses the tablet to help him communicate.
Savannah, who is in the district’s curriculum for students with severe cognitive disabilities, said she was thrilled to be back at school after five months off. She said “work” is her favorite part of school, while listing quizzes on which she had scored 100% and laughing as her teacher, Mr. Rawley, teased her.
“I don’t want to be stuck at home,” she said.
When schools closed abruptly in March, parents of children with disabilities had to add home schooling to their responsibilities. At Oak Park, roughly half of the school relies on assistive technology, ranging from the iPad that Luther uses to complex sensors that help make sense of seemingly involuntary movements.
School staff set up Zoom sessions to help parents use the devices for home schooling, and about 30% of the students opted to continue with remote learning once schools reopened in August. While fears about COVID-19 transmission in such a vulnerable population are real, many parents and students desperately wanted to return to the social environment that provides so many lessons.
Kathryn Shea, the recently retired executive director of the Florida Center, knows how vital a routine is for children with disabilities, and how much the parents need a break. Her son, Seth Winners, 31, graduated from Oak Park.
Winners has developmental delays and lives with his parents. COVID-19 has upended his life and theirs – he normally spends his days at The Haven’s residential program, but the program shut down before reopening part time in the last month.
Shea said that having Seth home with her all day is extremely challenging, as he asks every day for her to tell the story of COVID-19. He fills his time with Legos, playing in the pool and taking Ninja lessons through Zoom, but he misses the structure that his program provides.
“He just can’t process that the disease is here,” Shea said. “It’s just so hard for him to process that.”
Being able to attend school each day is a respite for both the parents and the child, Shea said.
“They can learn much faster cognitively when they feel safe and secure emotionally,” Shea said. “It is true for all of us, but it is so much more important for them because their brains function differently.”
At Oak Park, a pay bump for paraprofessionals helped ensure the school was fully staffed this year, despite the challenges. And while COVID-19 has complicated life for the teachers and staff at the school, virus mitigation remains a small hurdle compared to the ones they overcome daily.
“There is not a better example of the adaptability and flexibility than what our staff does here,” Lowicz said. “It may not be perfect, and it may not be the way you want it right now, but you do what you need to do.”