October 21, 2020

Amidst all the unknowns of COVID-19, society is attempting to create a “new normal”, and after months of isolation, returning to school is one of the things made absolutely essential.

New protocols have been put in place to make the environment safe for everybody, but what about the kids who struggle in any normal, and especially in a normal that is changing almost daily?

Jennifer Pinder, a developmental education support teacher for the Waterloo Region District school board, says the higher emphasis on added protocols can be challenging for kids with neurological and developmental disabilities. For example, essential tasks like washing hands can be difficult for some because “they don’t like the sounds of the taps, or the way the blow-dryers work in the bathrooms, or the way the soap feels even.”

 Pinder says teachers are learning new methods of coping for each challenge that arises. “Regardless of COVID or not, it’s our job as educators to be really flexible and constantly adjust our best practice to meet the needs of every child.” With washing hands, this could mean playing their favourite song, waiting until the other kids have gone so the washroom is empty, or using hand sanitizer instead.

This lense of flexibility extends not only to the teachers, but parents as well. Jennifer Williams, mother to Telisa, a 20-year-old grade 12 student with down syndrome, explains how they have been practicing wearing a mask in increments, gradually wearing it longer and longer each time. On a good day, Telisa wore the mask for about an hour, but her mother said, “I could see it was exhausting her, it took all of her effort to keep it on.”

Another inherently challenging part of school during COVID for the Williams’ is the social aspect. Jennifer says Telisa has reached her peak in academics, so what they really wanted to work on this year was her social skills, or the “hidden curriculum”. However, with an education system operating almost exclusively on Google Classroom, there aren’t many opportunities to practice social cues.

“They could’ve jumped on board and had a classroom on zoom,” Jennifer says about Telisa’s high school. She goes on to mention that Google Classroom is not an effective method to help the areas they wanted to improve this year, and says “We’ve had to find our own ways to remain social, and that’s via zoom.”

“It’s just not the right way for them to learn,” says Monique Kaptein, a teacher in Waterloo and mother to two autistic daughters, Emma, 18, and Tessa, 16, “These are kids who are behind in every aspect of life…they need to be in school more than anybody else.” Her kids are currently doing half to three-quarter days at school, and while she prefers this over distance learning, a regression in the girls’ social skills is already apparent.

  Despite these challenges, Pinder says parents have been generally appreciative, supportive, and responsive to the efforts made by educators to bring the best education possible during these times. Upon visiting a school, she noticed, “There was cards up on the front bulletin board, clearly written by parents, to the staff of the school…To have that support from parents fosters a really really good climate for the kids.” She says staff members are all doing their best to help kids do their best during this new normal and engage with each child at their level of need.

 Putting any group of children in a generalization is almost impossible, as there is always one that deviates, and this is no different for kids on the spectrum. Because of this, teachers are constantly required to be open-minded about solutions, as a method that works for one child may not work for the next. Pinder says this mindset has only been affected marginally, as they now have to find methods that also coincide with the virus precautions: “In some ways it’s the same because we’re always looking at the individual students and what their needs are, but in another way, we’re looking at their individual needs differently.”

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