For a teenage girl, few birthdays are as memorable as sweet 16.
So, when a student’s 16th birthday fell during the coronavirus shutdown, Laurie Hall wanted to do something to make it special. Using Google Meet to invite staff and a few friends, she threw a virtual birthday bash complete with signs and a mini slide show.
“She’s had a tough year and was bummed that she couldn’t celebrate her birthday with her friends or go out with her family, so I know it made her day,” said Hall, a Saratoga Adirondack BOCES Employees Association member at the Southern Adirondack Educational Center in Hudson Falls; SABEA is led by Bruce Hoffman. The facility is part of the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES network, which encompasses 31 school districts spread across five counties and offers instruction at five locations.
Hall is a social worker in SAEC’s therapeutic support program, one of two such programs serving students who have mental health issues, learning disabilities, or who are on the autism spectrum. A part of WSWHE’s Exceptional Learners Division — which serves students whose instructional needs can’t be met by their local districts due to their disabilities — therapeutic support students require the most assistance.
While the shutdown is difficult for all students, it’s particularly challenging for those who thrive on routine and rely heavily on the interaction and support they receive at school. That’s why WSWHE BOCES’ mental health professionals go to great lengths to maintain contact with students and their families through phone calls, emails, video chats and, if necessary, home visits.
“We’re considering doing drive-in visits to student’s homes,” said SABEA member Christina Clark, a social worker at the F. Donald Myers Education Center’s therapeutic support program in Saratoga Springs. She and her counseling partner Bill Henke, a mental health counselor, believe it would alleviate anxiety for some students to see them in person. “We could park out front in our cars and they could talk to us on their phones from their front porch or stoop.”
SABEA members Christina Clark, driver, and Laura Johnson, back seat, made six drive-in visits to student homes in April. Photo provided.
Incorporating the Boys Town Specialized Classroom Management System into remote learning — a behavior curriculum used to teach social skills — is a big part of preserving normalcy. Students earn positive or negative points based on their behavior. Checking into Google Classroom with teachers, responding to posted questions, or interacting with counselors all earn points, explained Henke noting that he and Clark post a daily Boys Town skill for students to work toward on their Google Classroom counseling site.
“Today it was being safe online, other days might focus on skills like accepting help from others, or speaking in an appropriate voice tone,” said Henke, a SABEA member. “We’re trying to focus on skills they can use at home.”
Maintaining regular contact with colleagues is also important, said Paula Katz a social worker in the ELD skills room at Myers. Although her students aren’t as high need as those in the therapeutic support program, both students and parents still require regular support with weekly phone calls, emails and a Google counseling classroom that students use as a chat room to discuss how they’re coping.
“It’s a generalized way for us to see how they’re managing change and stress,” said Katz, noting that she recently posted video of her service dog, and encouraged students to post about their own pets, to foster interaction.
“We’re really trying to stay on top of which students need a reach out and ensuring that parents aren’t overwhelmed with trying to help their child,” the SABEA member explained.
Katz’s remote workdays are bracketed by morning and end-of-day conference calls to plan the day ahead and share best practices with counseling and educator colleagues, both at Myers and throughout the network. “Since we all use Boys Town and Google Classroom, it’s helpful to share ideas,” she said.
Despite adapting to a new normal on the fly, the counselors are pleased with how things are going. “The kids are connecting and our Google Classroom is good for teachers as well as students,” said Henke noting that a recent video chat began with one student and grew to include teachers and guidance counselors.
Hall reasons that the unscheduled break might even underscore the old saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Her students say they miss school when she calls to check in.
Katz is proud of the collaboration she and colleagues have developed. “We didn’t know what to expect going into this, but being able to support each other, students and families is amazing.”