SOUTH BEND — Being an educator means being able to adapt to any situation.
They’ve seen it it all. Open a teacher’s desk drawer or cabinet and you will find a solution to any problem that you can think of — and a few that never crossed your mind.
Most of those classroom adaptations are the result of a teacher, school nurse or counselor having years of experience in meeting the needs of their students. That’s why the average teacher’s desk or cabinet is filled with pencils, pens, erasers and facial tissue. If a teacher has faced a problem, that teacher likely has an answer.
What happens when educators confront a challenge that no teacher has seen in at least 100 years? That has been the problem confronting educators since March when COVID-19 closed school buildings and has kept them closed until districts cautiously began reopening over the last few weeks.
Educators working in the South Bend schools’ preschool program for special needs students adjusted when the pandemic stopped in-person classes at schools throughout the area in March.
Even though schools had closed, staff members still had a legal obligation to assess students for special education needs, and come up with individualized education plans for those who need them.
So the team adapted by moving the classroom, desks toys and materials, outside into the courtyard at the Studebaker school building. Moving the program outside, combined with wearing masks and social distancing, allowed the assessments to be conducted in a safer environment.
Sybil Snyder, special education supervisor, said the team, which consists of a psychologist, a special education specialist, a speech therapist and a social worker, has to meet with students in person to get the best snapshot of a student’s needs.
Each team member evaluates the child. For example, the speech pathologist assesses the child’s language skills.
Lisa Putz, the social worker on the team, said working outside has some advantages. For one thing, the children enjoy it.
“Parents have responded positively to the space and the kids light up when they come around the corner and see the outside space,” she said.
There are also some challenges.
Social distancing has been a necessity, even in the outdoor class. That makes evaluating social skills hard because the educators could evaluate no more than two children at one time instead of the four that can be evaluated in an indoor classroom.
Kristen Warzon, the team’s psychologist, said mask wearing also presented a challenge.
“I am wearing a mask and that is a problem because I would like them to see the expressions on my face,” she said. “Being outside I am far enough away from them that I can pull it down for a second to give them a smile.”
Putz said that the biggest adaptation was finding a way to evaluate the children’s social skills since they can’t interact with their peers.
“For our little friends with autism or on the autism spectrum, it’s been kind of hard to get a feel on how they will interact when they actually come back to school in person,” Putz said. “So we get down on their level and play with them like we are their peers.”
Julie Patterson, speech pathologist, agrees.
“You have to get a little more creative, but I have still been able to do my full assessment,” she said.
And some inventions borne of necessity end up having a little more staying power. Though students begin returning to South Bend buildings for in-person classes this week, Snyder said the preschool program’s staff will continue conducting outside assessments as long at the weather allows.
“This allows us to remain outside and (maintain) social distance,” Snyder said, noting that the staff believes the students served by the preschool program will benefit from the extra level of protection.