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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Raising an Autistic Child in the Era of COVID19

Like about 90% of Americans, I’ve spent the two months under a stay-at-home order.  Being introverted this would have appealed to me 15 years ago. I would have happily worked, read, and watched movies from my tiny one-bedroom apartment.  I lead a different life than that younger, thinner guy.  I’m a husband and father to an energetic special needs child. 

Cristian, like many autistic children, thrives on routine.  Until recently, the school bus picked him up five days a week at 7:15.  For Cristian, school was about more than basic math and advanced crayon.  Cristian’s school, the Gersh Academy, structured his schedule so his ABA, OT, PT, and Speech therapies were part of his weekly schedule, per his IEP.  When he’s on a routine, Cristian is a cute five-year-old boy — disrupt his routine, and cute goes flying out the window.

My son’s world changed on March 15th, when Nassau County closed their schools, because of the pandemic.  Like many parents, Esther hoped it would be a short-term thing.  As a news junkie watching the numbers rise and the daily news briefings, I knew he wasn’t going back to school anytime soon. 

The Pandemic is an unprecedented event, and for two weeks, schools scrambled putting together plans for virtual learning.  Esther and I put together our own plan to keep Cristian engaged, entertained, and to minimize regression.  Besides being on the spectrum, Cristian is ADHD, the hyperactivity is more challenging than the autism.  Esther and I have sought outlets for his excess energy — it’s become more challenging in the era of social distancing.   

The first days were easy. I’d time his trips to parks so he could run around the playground before the locals came out for their morning walks or before it started raining.  Two weeks later, I took Cristian to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Preserve; it was big and empty or taking him with me to the cemetery.  As I paid respects to my Dad, on what would have been his 94th birthday, Cristian ran around a large, empty grass field, enclosed by iron gates.  Sometimes you have to get creative.

I’ve spent the past two months home with Cristian, juggling, working from home with his schoolwork.  Morning Zoom classes and therapy sessions part of our daily routine.  Like most people, I can’t wait until our lives return to normal.  The challenge is opening our society in a responsible way and hoping Cristian’s regression is minimal.

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