News and Happenings 

2020-21 School Year Recap  - A Year Like No Other

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August 18, 2021

By: Marybeth Harmer and Jillian Winn 

Like every other school in the world, A Step Up Academy (ASUA) had to pivot quickly in March 2020 to shift our instructional model due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  While it was not always easy, we learned a lot during this time.  We learned what worked and what did not work. We also realized that  some changes made during this time were beneficial and will “stick around” even as things return back to “normal.”

 

Before we dive into what we learned, let’s take a look at what we did.  In the beginning of March 2020, as we heard news of the coronavirus beginning to spread in the United States, the Senior Team at ASUA began discussing plans in the event of the need to close. We left school on March 12th with a plan to provide asynchronous academic and related services activities for 5 days. We then implemented ASUA’s Extended School Closure Plan- Phase 1 which offered direct virtual instruction to students in small groups.  We provided computers, iPads, and/or internet access to students who did not have adequate access for virtual learning. On March 30, 2020 we implemented ASUA’s Extended School Closure Plan-Phase 2 which provided individual and small group virtual instruction along with related services (speech, OT, behavior support, music therapy, and social skills). On June 29, 2020 we implemented ASUA’s Extended School Closure Plan-Phase 3 for our Extended School Year (ESY). We continued to provide individual and small group instruction, along with related services.  We expanded our traditional four day ESY program to a five day program to provide additional instructional time for our students. provided one additional day of instruction per week than our regular ESY programming, equaling an additional six days of instruction. 

 

During the spring and summer of 2020, the Senior team met daily to develop ASUA’s Safe Return to School Plan. In addition to reviewing all of the resources and information provided by the Montgomery County Health Department and the CDC, we also met with administrators from other special education schools in the area. The needs of our small specialized school serving students with autism were much different than those of large public schools for which most of the guidance was directed.  We knew that many of our students would have trouble tolerating masks, which made all of our decisions much more important. 

 

In late August 2020, we welcomed our staff back into the building for our annual in-service training.  This occurred a week before the students returned.  While this looked much different than years past, it was great to have our amazing staff back in the building.  On August 31, we started the new school year offering a fully virtual model and a hybrid model.  Our hybrid model was much different than any of our surrounding schools.  We had grouped our hybrid students into two cohorts, with one cohort attending school in-person for 5 full days a week and the other cohort receiving instruction virtually for 5 full days a week and alternating weeks between in-person and virtual instruction.  Going into the 2020-2021 school year we had already decided that we would shift back to a virtual model during the winter holiday season to minimize the risk to students and staff. We were fully virtual again from November 23rd - January 8th and returned to a hybrid model of instruction on January 11th.  Due to the fact that the majority of our staff received vaccines, we were able to offer all families the option for their child to return for in-person instruction on February 22nd. 

Throughout the school year, in-person instruction availability was dependent on local and state governmental regulations and restrictions. ASUA remained prepared to provide the fully remote online instruction to all of our students in the event that is mandated or in the event of exposure at ASUA in a building which requires closure.

 

What were some of our challenges and positive outcomes?

Scheduling always presents a challenge in schools and this was made even more complicated by incorporating different instructional models.  We had to create different schedules for each student for each model of instruction we had.  We needed to be even more flexible and creative than usual with staffing, while trying to minimize changes for students and families. Anyone that does building wide schedules for a school understands that it is a complicated matrix with a domino effect once one change is made and this year it was even more complicated, but we figured it out! 

 

We always consider our parents the experts on their children’s needs and their biggest advocates; however, becoming a pseudo teacher overnight presented some challenges.  We worked with our parents and caregivers to provide individualized training on all aspects of their childs’ programming, including behavior, occupational and physical therapy, speech, and academics. Our staff coached parents by modeling and facilitating a variety of strategies- the most important of which was providing positive reinforcement. Parents were able to see firsthand all of the challenges and triumphs of their child’s daily learning. One significant positive outcome was that parents were able to model and reinforce skills being taught throughout the day, even when not in instructional times. One of the most difficult aspects of virtual instruction was when a child would be exhibiting challenging behaviors that were difficult to manage.  All we could do was verbally coach parents through the screen, instead of being able to implement effective proactive and calming strategies outlined in a students’ Positive Behavior Support plan as we would if we were in person with the student.While we provided support and guidance, it was not the same as being able to be in the room with the child and assist them through their behavior difficulty. This was frustrating for the parents and heartbreaking for the staff to not be able to reach through the computer screen and help the family and students. What also made supporting behaviors difficult, was that we could only see what the computer allowed, and were not always able to assess the entire learning space to know what were possible environmental factors contributing to the behavior.  On a lighter note, there was a lot of team building that occurred between staff and families as we coached them through technical difficulties.

 

While we can all agree that we spent way more time in Zoom than we would have liked, we learned that using Zoom for parent and staff meetings is a great option.  Being able to schedule a zoom meeting with a parent is often much easier for some of our families who may not have reliable transportation or who live a far distance from our school.  Also, since we have two locations, using Zoom to hold either schoolwide or individual staff meetings can be a more efficient use of time and has helped to keep our staff community connected in a new way. 

 

We also learned that many of our students were not only motivated, but thrived, using the increased technology as a learning tool.  While hands-on instruction will always have a place, we have incorporated more technology platforms into our daily instruction. In some instances, we found that instruction through a virtual model was more effective than hands-on instruction.  

 

It was a great relief to make it through the school year without any prolonged closures or confirmed cases of Covid transmission within our buildings.  This is a testament to the strict protocols implemented in our Safe Return to School plan.  Staff were required to wear masks at all times. In addition, we had staff and students participate in hourly cleanings that involved washing hands and wiping down surfaces.  Maintaining a high level of hand washing and cleaning throughout the day is definitely something that will continue to be in place as a proactive measure to reduce the spread of any illness.  

 

One of the greatest lessons during the past sixteen months has been seeing the resilience in our students. Our students quickly adapted to all of the changes that occurred during this time.  They realized that home was their new classroom and worked harder than ever to make gains in all areas of their learning.  Our students also adjusted to their return to in-person instruction and navigated alternating weeks at home and in school with relative ease.  Our students were able to show growth in exhibiting independence with different tasks related to their learning.  Lastly, in addition to the resiliency of our students, our staff deserve a huge shout out for their dedication and teamwork through one of the most challenging school years.  It truly was a herculean effort that was only successful because every part of our community came together to meet that common goal of growth for our students.