Kristen Hanson and her unusually resourceful educators in the Special Services Department of the Brick Township school district realized they were in a tough spot.
In March 2020, to protect students and families from the coronavirus, the governor closed the schools, requiring all children to attend school virtually. That presented a huge challenge for approximately 125 students with profound disabilities in the Ocean County district.
“Some of our students have severe autism, so they are nonverbal,” said Hanson, director of special services for Brick. “Others have physical disabilities, so managing a Chromebook is very difficult for them.”
Her students include those with hearing impairments. Others have Down syndrome. And still others have cognitive disabilities, Hanson said, meaning they have trouble communicating or processing information.
So – how do you teach the kids who are the hardest to reach? The district listened to the feedback from parents who said their children, above all, needed resources and materials at home.
For some, the district supplied teddy bears to explain math. In education jargon, toys like teddy bears are called “manipulatives,” meaning they can be handled to illustrate an abstract concept, such as subtraction.
“Instead of saying two minus one is one,” Hanson said, a teacher will place two bears on a table, and take one away. A child with difficulty processing information can find it easier to see and understand a toy, like a teddy bear, than an abstract number, Hanson explained.
That’s a small-scale example of the massive campaign Brick used to reach the special education students enrolled in its Extended School Year program. The district bought Rubbermaid “curriculum boxes” for each of the 300 children in the summer program. Each box was tailored to meet the needs of each student.
Some boxes were filled with tissue paper, Play-Doh, paint and paint brushes, Hanson said.
Because of the extra effort the district invested in the program, the Brick’s special education department won a 2021 School Leader Recognized Program award.
In a prepared statement issued by the district, Stephanie Wohlrab, president of the Brick Board of Education, praised the “high-quality instruction” that “responded to ever-changing circumstances.”
Superintendent Dr. Thomas Farrell said Brick met the challenge of the pandemic with programs that “could still engage learners, while not losing the content in the delivery.”
Brick special education students received storybooks, crayons, paper and scissors. Every curriculum box was different, but every box contained a personalized letter from a teacher and snacks provided by the Knights of Columbus.
Compensatory education was another key element of Brick’s award-winning program. Nearly two years before the state required it, Brick educators acknowledged that special education students needed extra time to get their learning back on track.
In the summer 2020, and again during summer 2021, Brick added hours of occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech services and additional instruction time before the state mandated it.
“We did it because it was the right thing to do,” Hanson said. In the Brick Township school district, students in need of compensatory education services got them, “and nobody had to fight for it. No parent had to call up and say, ‘I demand it,’” Hanson explained.
As a result, parents are “very happy with the way we’ve done things,” she said. By providing compensatory education to students before being required to do so, parents learned “to trust us that we’re going to do the right thing.”
For the summer of 2022, Brick planned to continue to provide additional compensatory education services. The district learned that some services, such as speech therapy, can be successfully delivered remotely, so that when students are quarantined during virus outbreaks, they can still receive some necessary services at home.
“Do we still owe students (for what they missed during the pandemic)?” Hanson asked. “Absolutely. But we are way ahead of the curve for providing what is owed, and we’re going to hopefully make up a lot more ground this summer.”