Not only did 2020 bring many challenges for students, but the past year also created new roles and challenges for parents and educators. As social distancing guidelines became the norm, students moved to a virtual learning environment and parents were faced with how to continue to provide for their families while also figuring how to care for their students that were no longer in school all the while taking on the responsibility of being their educator. This was a daunting task, made even more challenging if you were the parent of a student with a developmental disability then the additional roles may also have included becoming your child’s specialized therapist, behavior analyst, nurse and more.

And organizations like ACCEL and The BISTÅ Center, recognized leaders in special education services, were adapting their programs and curriculum during this turbulent time, working with their students, parents and school district partners on this journey through 2020.

ACCEL is a nonprofit organization which includes the BISTÅ Center and a K-12 private school serving students who have developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, cognitive disabilities, and behavioral disorders. The BISTÅ Center, a division of ACCEL, is an applied behavior analysis (ABA) agency, specializing in early intervention services for children who have developmental disabilities and behavioral disorders.

According to Gordon Comfort, ACCEL’s chief operating officer, the past year was like flying an airplane without the benefit of the navigation equipment.

“Our educators are used to adapting education resources to fit the needs of our students,” says Comfort.  “But the COVID-19 pandemic was unlike anything else we’ve ever experienced, there was no roadmap for how to navigate these challenging times.”

The Challenge

Moving to a virtual learning environment is challenging for any student but especially for students with cognitive and physical impairments who benefit greatly from a consistent daily routine and in-person interaction with teachers, therapists, paraprofessionals, and nurses. Jon Evans, principal of ACCEL’s Metro Campus, emphasized the challenge of adapting the in-person learning model to a virtual environment.

“To start, many of our families didn’t have the necessary technology or access to Wi-Fi, essential tools for their student to learn virtually,” says Evans. “Our teachers use a variety of resources in the classroom that had to be modified for the virtual environment. And we had to ensure our parents could be engaged with process to ensure the best learning opportunity for their student.”

Often, students with special needs require detailed side-by-side and hands-on instructions and examples from a teacher or paraprofessional to learn the curriculum and to complete their homework and assignments.

“With most parents working fulltime, childcare became a huge challenge for our students as it probably did for most families in the Valley,” says Evans. “Then you have the added strain that in some families one or both parents may have lost a job because of the pandemic, and you have additional circumstances creating stress on the family unit.”

For special education teacher, Sierra Brown, the fear of the unknown and loss of normalcy and a routine had a big impact on her students.

“My students are medically fragile, and many are immune-compromised,” says Brown. “Their health and safety became more important than their education. But as an educator, I had to find a way to accommodate both.”

Routines and structure are established at the beginning of the school year and often are not fully set into a student’s brain till the end of the year. That structure needed to be modified for the virtual learning environment, recognizing that some of the traditional on-campus activities like recess and lunch look much different now.

“A typical school day is about six hours and that includes time for students to work on academic, therapeutic, social and emotional skills and also socialize with their peers,” says Brad Reed, ACCEL’s director of training and program development.  “In the transition, we wanted to make sure our students had the necessary instructional time and that they were able to accomplish their individual education plan (IEP) goals.”

This meant teachers were continually adapting the curriculum for parents to model at home.

The Solution

The COVID-19 pandemic was not like anything anyone had experienced before. And when it became obvious that the disruption it was causing to the learning environment was going to be around for a while, all the departments across ACCEL and The BISTÅ Center came together to figure out the best way to provide quality education services for their students and families.

“We had to acknowledge that we had never experienced this before, there was no best practices manual for how to manage this going forward,” says Reed. “But we knew we could count on each other and that together we would make solid and effective decisions. It was important for us to have a lot of patience with each other, with our students and our parents as we were all trying to figure this out. We had to give each other permission to say it was ok to restructure and try something new.”

ACCEL began outreach to their families to identify the needs of their students in order to be able to learn in a virtual environment. Bilingual translators were available to meet with Spanish-speaking families so that all families had access to the information.

“Working with our development team, we were able to secure funds to purchase approximately 70 Chromebooks, about 30 webcams and set up wireless hot spots to get our families online,” says Evans. “We had limited staff onsite creating new and custom learning materials for each student and made those available to their parents for pick up.”

In addition to providing the technology to their families, a system was launched that allowed parents to safely pick up any additional materials or equipment.

“We even had some teachers who did porch drop-offs at students’ homes,” says Evans.

“It was critically important to all of us that our students had everything they needed to succeed in this new learning environment,” says Evans. “We communicated with our parents on a regular basis to let them know that we were there for their students and their families.”

Recognizing that the loss of employment in many households created additional stress for families, an SOS committee, made up of team members who volunteered their time, pivoted to support families who were impacted by a job loss.

“The members of this committee were dedicated to continually finding ways to support our families, raising money and securing needed items,” says Evans. “We sent home grocery gift cards and clothes, and connected families with community organizations and food banks within their zip codes and even worked with the local school districts to provide meals to families.”

At The BISTÅ Center, staff and clinicians were assessing the situation as well, finding creative and innovative ways to get their programs and services to their families. Thanks to technology,

the team began utilizing telehealth to continue consultations.

“We began providing a variety of services via telehealth, including Applied Behavioral Analysis consultations, virtual trainings for parents and online social groups for clients,” says Cailin Ockert, The BISTÅ Center’s clinical director. “We were even ‘on call’ for our parents to assist them in ways we weren’t able to in the past no matter the time of day.”

Through this time, both organizations remained focused meeting the individual learning needs of each student, while remaining cognizant of the personalized care of each student.

According to Brown, “ACCEL has always done a great job at individualizing student learning experiences and trusting us, as teachers, to do what was right in this new virtual environment.” 

The Reward

With any challenge comes rewards and ACCEL and The BISTÅ Center have been able to take full advantage of that adage and took the opportunity to evaluate and expand its services.

“This past year we fully embraced technology,” Reed. “What adaption our staff has done with our curriculum will benefit us for many years to come and help us to continue to be open to new ways of teaching.”

Emily Nuño, assistant director of The BISTÅ Center, emphasizes the important lessons that the challenging year brought.

“We will always find a way to help a child,” says Nuño. “This time showed us how extremely capable our clinicians are, pivoting in these trying times to support our clients.”

The virtual learning environment has allowed these organizations to become more creative in their teaching styles and embrace these changes for the future.

“Around the country, telehealth is expected to be a staying power for ABA services,” says Ockert. “We are hoping to continue telehealth services as well our weekly virtual social groups as an extension of our in-person services giving our clients another way to engage with our services.”

The Future

As more and more adults and young people are getting vaccinated and social distancing protocols are loosening up a bit, teachers, parents, and students are looking forward to returning to the classroom. And this cooperative effort will continue to be important as parents and teachers work together to ease the transition back into the classroom.  And this starts with continued communication between the parents and their students’ teachers.

“When students return to the classroom, we will need to assess their comfort level and adjust our teaching strategies to accommodate,” says Brown. “We have to recognize that for some students it will have been nearly 18 months since they were in a classroom and we don’t want to push right away for them to be in engaged in every activity.”

Reed also recommends using the summer months to ease the transition.

“Many of our students are very visual learners, so taking a couple trips down to the school a few days prior to the first day just to say ‘hi’ will be helpful in getting the student comfortable,” says Reed. “Preparing for a change in routine can be challenging, but with communication with their teacher and preparation can make for a smoother transition.”

In the 2020-21 school year, ACCEL began working with Murphy Elementary School District to begin transitioning several of their students to ACCEL for services.

“ACCEL staff were involved in meeting with our parents, offering them in-person and most recently virtual tours of the campus,” says Dr. Chris Gilbert, Murphy Elementary School District’s director of student services. “As administrators we were grateful to have a partner like ACCEL to work with us and our families to create a smooth transition for these students.”

According to Dr. Gilbert, the parents of the students who have moved to ACCEL for services have continued to express excitement over the progress their child is making.

“The students are learning new life skills, behavior skills and working on transition plans to be able to return to Murphy Elementary School District and be among their peers,” says Dr. Gilbert. “For some of our students, finding additional ways to help them make progress educationally means making some difficult but important decisions. We are happy to have ACCEL as our partner in this effort.”

“We are especially proud of our teachers and paraprofessionals for their tremendous efforts this past year, says Evans. “Truly, all teachers across the Valley rose to the occasion to do what is best for our children. We commend them all for their diligence and hard work.”

Ockert agrees. “Our clinicians never missed a beat, finding new and innovative ways to keep our clients on track with their goals,” she says.

Autumn Jarrett, earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism with an emphasis in public relations and a certificate in marketing and sales from Arizona State University, before joining HMA Public Relations in 2019. Originally from Decatur, Ill., Jarrett moved to Arizona to attend ASU without ever visiting the campus or even the state of Arizona. She will correct you every time that you say she’s from Chicago, and no, she wasn’t born in the fall. She has grown to love Arizona since moving here, despite the “dry heat” that is tremendously different from back home, but the easy access to great spicy margaritas has helped.

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