What We Have Seen and Learned From A Year of COVID-19
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a full year since COVID-19 came into our lives and turned our world upside down. It’s often difficult to understand how a crisis has changed things until time has passed and things have returned to normal. But sometimes, especially if a crisis is long lasting, the changes that it has brought about can be evaluated – for better and for worse – even while the crisis is ongoing. That is the case for us here at The Yellin Center.
There can be no question that the deaths and illness that have affected so many are the most painful consequences of this pandemic and our thoughts are with those who have struggled with illness or lost loved ones. The crushing economic toll on so many families has created real need, along with anxiety and uncertainty.
We have observed a number of recurring themes over the past year, and while the experiences we have encountered with students and their families are strictly anecdotal, we believe that recounting and discussing them can be helpful to parents, teachers, and other professionals.
Where Things Have Gone Right
As we do when we evaluate students, let’s start with the positives that we are seeing come out of the pandemic learning paradigms, with many students learning exclusively online and many others mostly in hybrid in-person/remote settings.
Parent observations during remote learning can provide new perspectives on what is going on with their child, creating a more complete picture. For example, when a teacher is working in-person with an entire class, she may observe a child talking to his classmates after the teacher gives instructions. To the teacher, this may look like difficulties with attention or self-control, but the parents sitting with the child who is learning remotely can see that he is losing focus or reaching out to classmates because he was confused with the teacher’s instructions and having difficulty understanding the language the teacher used.
It has also been the experience of the families with whom we work that teachers are using the Direct Message feature on Zoom to preview/prompt/support individual students and provide scaffolding in a non-stigmatizing way.
All kinds of meetings in which we had participated by telephone or in person are now done on Zoom. We have found that this works really well for Committee on Special Education (CSE) meetings. In addition to allowing our clinical team to attend remotely, more members of the school-based team, as well as community based service providers and both parents, can participate easily.
The same benefits apply for the post-assessment meetings we frequently hold with schools, to review our reports and discuss our findings. We plan to continue this way of meeting after the pandemic and hope that schools agree.
We have found telemedicine or virtual visits very effective for Consultation, Demystification, Follow-up, Medication Management, and Counseling. Such virtual visits are particularly valuable for brief check-ins after initiating medication treatment. When starting medication or changing prescriptions or dosing, it is important to check in often to make sure the student is tolerating the medication well and benefitting from it. A Zoom check-in several times in the first weeks is an excellent way to do this. Even once pandemic restrictions end, we plan to use Zoom to speak face-to-face to college students or families that live further away when in-office check-ins are problematic.
On occasion, we are asked whether we provide remote assessments. We have done a good deal of research into this method of assessment and have made remote assessments available at times, either as part of an assessment or, less commonly, as a full assessment. However, we are not yet convinced that remote assessment is as effective as in-person assessment and therefore continue to screen carefully for those situations where we believe they are appropriate to offer. Most families continue to prefer in-person assessments and we have been able to modify our space and our practice to provide assessments that are safe for families and staff.
Where Students, Families, and Schools are Struggling
Older Students: For many older students, the pandemic occurred just at a time when they were moving toward more independence and beginning to venture out into the world on their own. That all came to an abrupt stop, along with reminders from parents and others that the world that had been opening up to them was no longer safe. Many older students have struggled with too much time at home and too much proximity to their families.
Older students with attention and executive function challenges also have been struggling with the time management demands of online learning. Particularly challenging are asynchronous online lessons, when students proceed at their own pace. Many students have trouble navigating through the school day, unsure about when to sign on, when to complete assignments, and how or when to submit their work.
Family Situations: Parents’ situations during the pandemic have had significant impacts on their children. Those parents who can work from home have to balance their work with supervising their children’s online learning, but at least can usually keep their jobs and their income. For parents who must be present in-person at their workplaces, the decision to keep their job or supervise their children can be fraught with economic and personal sacrifices, which have been disproportionately borne by lower income families.
Children with Special Needs: In our experience, some of the most significant impact of pandemic learning has fallen on students with special learning needs who had been obtaining services from their public schools. Children who had been doing well in co-learning classes (ICT, here in New York City), where a regular and special education teacher worked together in one classroom, have often been broken into “pods,” working with only one teacher. In these situations, the special education teacher is often not available consistently or predictably.
There have been delays in school evaluations and in reimbursements to families who are seeking tuition payments at private special education programs. And student IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) have frequently not been fully implemented, as schools struggle to provide basic services, let alone specialized supports.