KINGSTON — For many of us, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic may seem like ancient history.
For students affected by autism, and their families, the impacts of 2020 remain real and relevant.
At The Graham Academy, which offers special education for students with autism and behavioral challenges, students transitioned to home learning for nearly six months at the height of the pandemic.
The return to a classroom setting was a challenge for some.
“For some it still is,” said Jason Davenport, Program Supervisor at The Graham Academy.
In a recent interview, Davenport and Program Director Carol McGrane spoke about how those six months affected students at the academy.
“We conducted online learning, but children who are affected with autism need their social and emotional interactions,” McGrane said.
“When the pandemic hit, that part of the program was lost. Our students come here for the social and emotional engagement, not just the academic engagement. When they were confined to the home setting, a lot of those skills that we work very diligently on were lost,” she said. “A lot of our students have lost social skills.”
Especially for some students who were lower-functioning, McGrane said there was a definite regression in speech, regression in picking up on social cues, regression in being able to maintain eye contact.
“We’ve had to go back to re-teaching those skills,” she added.
That is one significant challenge.
The other is meeting with a significant growth in demand for The Graham Academy’s services since the pandemic.
Founded in 2008, the academy currently serves 168 students between the ages of 5 and 21, with 108 at its elementary school in Kingston and 60 at its high school in Luzerne.
Overall enrollment was 90 when the school shut down in-person learning in March 2020, McGrane said.
The Graham Academy had to add modular classrooms in the courtyard of the Kingston school to meet that demand.
“We’ve never seen as many young children come through our program as we do now. We have more 5, 6, and 7-year-olds than we ever did,” she said.
Why? There may never be a definitive answer, but McGrane has some ideas.
“I think the pandemic kind of opened up parents’ eyes,” McGrane said. “When the pandemic hit kids were home, and now you’re seeing behaviors.”
A broad service area
One of the recurring themes in our three-day “Invisible Battles” series has been how the growing need for specialized mental health/education services for students has played out against a struggle to meet those needs.
The Graham Academy has been successful in meeting many of those needs in-house. The challenges are how many students come to the program in search of those services, and from how far: Demand for The Graham Academy’s services comes from well beyond Luzerne County.
As McGrane and Davenport explained, the academy serves 30 school districts across multiple counties. Some students live mere minutes away, though some travel up to 90 minutes, from as far afield as Jim Thorpe and Lehighton in Carbon County, Pleasant Valley in Monroe County, and Riverside in Lackawanna County, to name a few examples.
Most students come as referrals from home districts who can’t support the student due to their needs for smaller classroom settings, one-on-one interaction and other services.
“We are fully staffed,” McGrane said, with “layers” of services including occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, a behavior intervention program, counseling (including trauma-based counseling), behavioral technicians, teacher assistants, special-education teachers.
“We are one-stop. We offer all of those services in program,” McGrane said. “We try to provide as much as we can in-house.”
First Hospital closure
But as many school officials have said, the closure of First Hospital last year means students who need referrals for more serious, inpatient care may have to travel long distances to receive the care they once would have received at the hospital on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston.
“They are going more to crisis situations in hospitals,” McGrane said. “Wilkes-Barre General Hospital is the first place where they are taken, and then the hospital will evaluate whether they need to be seen further. But they are going further out.”
Among the destinations: Belmont Behavioral Health System in Philadelphia, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health in Villanova, the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, and in at least one case, a hospital in the Pittsburgh area.
“It’s very difficult,” McGrane said. “You can’t sit bedside in First Hospital like you used to. They’re being located further out than we want them to be.”
Compounding the loss of First Hospital has been the closure of businesses that offer behavioral health therapy services in our region, and McGrane said some of the academy’s students have been affected.
That’s why the academy works so hard to meet needs in-house as much as possible.
“We try to hire enough staff so we don’t have to use outside services because we know they’re not available,” she said.
Before, during and since the pandemic, The Graham Academy has focused not just on how to best serve students in class, but on how to work with families to help their children thrive at home.
“One of the biggest aspects of the program we pride ourselves on is we try to transfer what we do in the program to the home,” McGrane said.
That’s why the impacts of 2020 are still felt so acutely.
“One Friday in March, everything changed. That Friday, parents became teachers,” Davenport said.
The school swung into high gear: In two weeks Chromebooks and tablets were distributed to all the parents and distance learning began.
But some students who had been successful in a classroom setting were sometimes struggling to adapt to learning from home.
“We had students who were like, ‘well, I’m home. Why do I need to work?’ And they’ve got a point,” Davenport recalled.
One solution was to help parents create ways to set up a comfortable, designated learning area whenever possible, whether a desk or a special chair or part of the couch.
The greater challenge was how to emulate services that had formerly been provided in person.
“It became a problem when we weren’t able to reach the behaviors that were happening across the screen,” McGrane said, noting that support staff were not able to go out to the students’ homes during the shutdown.
“It was very challenging. You do the best you can. Our physical therapist was doing jumping jacks (on screen), for example.”
Then there was the return to school.
Some students were very eager to get back, Davenport recalled. Others had grown comfortable at home and found the change difficult.
As he said above, some still do.
The overall approach is to create a supportive environment and re-establish routines. And he acknowledges it may be a long process for some students.
“Patience is the way to go,” Davenport said. “Consistency is key.”
McGrane echoed that.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do in making up ground that we lost. Students with autism don’t have the ability that you and I have to move on the next day and make our lives work,” she said.
“Our students need time to process. They lost six months and it’s going to take a couple of years to get back to where we were.”
To read more in the series, click here.
Read the original article here.