The year 2020 will go into the books as a difficult one for St. Louisans of all ages, perhaps more so for young people with special learning needs. Area teachers who work with these students say the children have faced challenges and developed coping skills to make the best of an uncertain situation. T&S asked two educators how they are teaming up with kids to move forward this year.
jenny menke | miriam school
“We have been back on campus since August,” says Menke, a middle school teacher at the Webster Groves school for kids with unique learning needs. “It has taken some extra planning to create classroom arrangements, routines and procedures that adhere to COVID-19 guidelines, but the kids are doing well and remembering the rules because they want to be part of the solution. Overall, they are doing a great job protecting themselves and others.”
Menke says some of the year’s biggest challenges have arisen from the fact that many Miriam students learn best when they can collaborate with others in person. Before they returned to campus, there was a period of online/video learning, and some kids found it difficult to focus on screens for hours at a time. “Many students also feel more confident alongside a close friend, so it was hard for them to be apart,” she notes.
Miriam’s safety precautions have included sanitizing common areas and minimizing movement around the school. “Each student stays in one assigned seat for social distancing reasons—and in case we have to do contact tracing,” she explains. “That can be tough for kids who feel calmer and more comfortable in a friend group.” Face masks have presented some difficulties as well. “Students count on being able to recognize people and read facial expressions and cues, so masks can be tricky for them,” Menke says. “We have tried different solutions like masks with clear panels and plexiglass barriers around podiums.”
Menke adds that Miriam students have plenty of tools to handle added stress and frustration. “We have a sensory room where they can go for a breather, and there are classroom observation booths with microphones so they can have quiet time while still taking part in lessons,” she notes. “During breaks, they can go outside to swing, ride a scooter or do other activities. We have lots of ways to help students stay focused, and they know the faculty and staff are working hard to keep them safe. They take it as seriously as we do.”
georgi walczyk | academy of st. louis
The private Catholic school for students with learning challenges has been in session on campus at The Goddard School in Chesterfield since the beginning of the school year, says Walczyk, a teacher and administrator. She says learning at home earlier in the year presented obstacles for some students, and they are glad to be back on school grounds. “I had difficulty adjusting, so I know it was tough for our kids,” she notes. “Many of our students are on the autism spectrum, so consistency and structure are important for them.”
She says the school has responded to social distancing concerns with more opportunities for kids to spend time outdoors. “When the temperature is 40 degrees or above, we go outside twice a day,” she notes. “We also have been taking more field trips to places like the St. Louis Aquarium that accommodate kids with sensory challenges. It’s helpful for students to get out and have fun experiences.”
The campus offers plenty of other constructive outlets as well. There are classroom swings for kids who need a few minutes of relaxation and fun tools like water balloons and outdoor games to help students release stress. “They also can take advantage of guided meditation,” Walczyk says. “They learn how to relax their minds and muscles, from the top of the head to the toes. We have a big seating area with couches, blankets, beanbag chairs and pillows where they can get comfortable and enjoy some peace and quiet.” Surfaces are cleaned regularly, and kids have embraced the importance of masks, handwashing and hand sanitizer, she adds.
Walczyk says each morning starts with prayer and special intentions, and kids then can go to the gym to walk around, stretch their legs and wake up their minds. “Some bring in their scooters to work off extra energy,” she notes. And if students want to check in with their friends in other classrooms, they can hop on a fun video call during breaks.
“Even with this year’s challenges, we have been able to adapt and stay true to our mission,” Walczyk says. “We are about individualized learning, helping kids transition to the path God has planned for them, and assisting them in meeting their personal goals.”