Remote Learning — Our New Normal

Working remotely with Miss Jess, his Occupational Therapist.

It’s the Dog Days of Summer — the last days of August are winding down as we wait for Labor Day and the start of a new school year.  Under normal circumstances, Esther and I would be headed to the outlets to buy Cristian’s school clothes and wait for a list of school supplies from his teacher. This isn’t a normal year.

Back in March, schools closed, and they instructed people to work from home to flatten the curve.  At first, staying at home during a Global Pandemic seemed like going underground in a dystopian novel.  

At first, it seemed like a good idea.  Many embraced the thought of hunkering down, binge-watching Netflix, and consuming large amounts of comfort food.  If you aren’t a parent.

Keeping entertained with his markers before his school provided a schedule.

We didn’t have that luxury — I miss the days before we were parents.  Esther and I spent the first weeks keeping Cristian engaged and entertained, hoping he didn’t regress too much.  Let’s be honest, all of us, children and adults alike, were getting too much screen time in March.

Parents look to schools for a sense of security, but during those first days, there wasn’t any.  As an educator myself, I knew the situation was unprecedented. There was no road map for a Pandemic.  It wasn’t the school’s fault, Cristian’s school, The Gersh Academy, teaches students ranging in age from 5 through 21. Creating a new curriculum took time.

As late March became April, Cristian’s school sent us an educational app called IXL.  It’s like ABC Mouse.com which already on his tablet.  We figured if he was getting too much screen time — let it be productive.  Cristian enjoyed playing with his new math and language arts games.

Doing some IXL in my office at home.

A few weeks later, the school sent us their plan for remote learning. We were less than thrilled.  The schedule was overwhelming there were classes, therapy sessions, homework, and IXL assignments.  Besides this, Esther is an essential worker, so keeping Cristian educated and entertained fell into my lap. 

I don’t want to sound like a lazy parent, but the number of people who thought I could easily devote 12 to 14 hours a day to Cristian’s education amazed me.  Teachers, administrators, and therapists were all gung-ho.  I had to keep reminding them, “I HAVE A JOB, DAMN IT!” 

The answer was always, “Oh yes, I understand,” after withstanding my pissed-off growl.  I still wonder if they really did.

We made the most of our situation and hoped for the best.  Cristian responds better from structure and routine, so we approached remote learning like a regular school day.  Every morning, he dressed for school after breakfast.  We allowed him to bring his transitional object, a stuffed animal, and we got him excited about going back to school.

His first remote session was OT with Miss Jess.  We love Jess; she bonded with Cristian before the crisis. She truly understands him.  When he saw her on the screen, he smiled and said, “Miss Jess, my favorite teacher in the whole world.”

A pre-class selfie to loosen him up.

Cristian’s schedule was full. It included a 30-minute morning meeting every day, Occupational Therapy 3 times a week, Speech Therapy, 3 times a week, and ABA therapy once a week for 30 minutes.  We also paid out of pocket for a separate 30-minute OT session with a private instructor.  Then there was the homework.  They sent us six or seven worksheets a day.

Knowing our son, we scheduled his classes early in the day and left a 30-minute break between classes.  More than once, I finished one of Cristian’s Zoom sessions at school, before jumping on one for work.  

When the Spring semester ended in June, we enrolled Cristian in a six-week summer session. He does better when he’s kept occupied.  Summer sessions meant fewer students, more therapy.  Besides the spring schedule, he now received ABA five days a week and Physical Therapy twice a week.  The memory of holding an iPad in front of my five-year-old son, while the therapist walked him through yoga poses puts a smile on my face. 

Remote learning wasn’t always smooth sailing.  Cristian had a few rough days along the way.  There were meltdowns, and sometimes his ADHD kicked in after the fourth session of the morning.  The remnants of Tropical Storm Isaias left one of Cristian’s teachers without power for a few days, cancelling a few classes, but we pushed on.

Cristian starts first grade on September 2nd in a hybrid model.  Esther and I worry, but we feel the mix of live classes and social interaction could slow some regression.  We do this with some trepidation; we know remote learning is not the best option, but it’s what we have at the time and we wonder how long will it be until we will conduct his entire schedule from home.

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A Gift For a Day and Another For a Lifetime.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted new material – about eight months.   A few things changed since my last post while others have stayed the same.  Cristian has kept Esther and I busy.  I’ve been writing — just not for this blog.  I’ll be posting about that in 2020.

A few months ago, Cristian turned 5.  Last year, I wrote a heartfelt post for his birthday, this year we focused on giving him a birthday party that focused on the children.  Too many times, we’ve gone to birthday parties disguised as weddings.  I’ll admit, I enjoyed the bacon-wrapped scallops, pigs in a blanket, and open bar — a lot — it wasn’t how we wanted to celebrate Cristian’s birthday.   Cristian and his cousins had a blast running and running and bouncing around the trampoline park where we celebrated his birthday.

In addition to planning his birthday, Esther and I spent much of 2019 finding a good kindergarten for Cristian.  The old me would have spent a good twenty minutes goofing on any person using that last sentence.  It’s amazing how one’s opinion changes when one’s perspective does.  I still goof on things, like gender-reveal parties — I was at one of those a few days ago.

In New York City, special needs children, including those with autism, cognitive delays, emotional disturbances, sensory impairments, or multiple disabilities are assigned to a District 75 School.  We spent much of the past year having Cristian evaluated by various mental health professionals and specialists or conducting site visits of potential schools.  This daunting process is more difficult because the bureaucrats parents are required to work with — they don’t make the process easy. 

The system is Darwinian — set up for most to fail.  Esther’s background as an Early Intervention and CPSE (Committee of Special Education) Coordinator gave her insight to how the system worked — but it didn’t make navigating it easier.  To someone like me, it seemed like the goal was to have parents bang their heads against the wall from all the bureaucratic nonsense.  After a few too many bumps and bruises, many give up and quit.

Cristian is fortunate that his favorite person is a capable advocate.  People meeting Esther learn quickly that she doesn’t give up easily.  Whether she’s a running a marathon, or fighting for her son’s services—his mom has a never-say die attitude that serves him well. 

During an OT session

By late Summer, after a series of phone calls to case managers, and follow-ups with their supervisors, we ensured placement in a District 75 school where we felt Cristian’s needs would be met.  At the end of July, Esther and I toured the school with a group of anxious parents.  The administrators said all the right things as we visited the facilities where the children would get therapy and services.  Everything should have been fine, but looking over at Esther, I realized they weren’t.  She wasn’t feeling it in her gut.  If eleven years together taught me anything, it’s trust her gut. 

Trusting her intuition, she found a private school in Nassau County where she was blown away by what she saw.  They use the ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) method, which Cristian has responded to.  Unlike the Public Schools we toured, they were better equipped to deal with Cristian’s specific needs.  Besides being autistic, he’s ADHD.  In a classroom setting, he’s a runner.  He ran out of his preschool classroom during this Turning Five Evaluation.  That incident stuck with Esther.  The non-answers she received on several school tours gave her that funny feeling.

A week later, Cristian and I joined Esther for a tour of this private school in West Hempstead — The Gersh Academy.  After several months of touring schools and feeling something was missing, we found a school that got Cristian.  There was one problem — the school was pricy — out of our budget pricey. 

After some research, we retained the services of a lawyer to take Cristian’s case to the Department of Education.  If the DOE cannot meet his specific needs, let’s put him in an environment with professionals who can.

Cristian started at The Gersh Academy in September, while his case is still pending.  Since then, his growth and development have been remarkable.

As I look back on 2019, I’ll remember two things about Cristian.  The joy and happiness he showed us bouncing around a trampoline park with his cousins and closest friends on his fifth birthday.  The other is the meetings, phone calls, and evaluations to ensure we placed Cristian in an environment that ensured his growth and development when that day at the trampoline park is a distant memory. 

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