Traverse City News and Events

Calm In The Storm: Local Accessible Education Programs Hold Steady Despite COVID, School Staffing Crisis

By Craig Manning | Feb. 27, 2022

Amidst a trying two years of pandemic closures and other unprecedented disruptions to K-12 learning, local accessible education professionals have mostly managed to keep their kids’ routines intact.

That’s good news, since experts say fixed routines are particularly important in accessible education situations – not just to avoid learning interruptions, but also to eliminate stressors that might be particularly challenging for students with social, cognitive, or learning disabilities.

Still, that consistency wasn’t a given. It’s no secret that local school districts have been dealing with massive staffing shortages. In the past two months alone, Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) has had to cancel school and disrupt transportation schedules due to what Ginger Smith – the district’s executive director of marketing and communications – calls a true “district-wide” staffing crisis. But while those disruptions have affected all local students, they very well could have been devastating for students with disabilities.

For Lisa Klepper, the two years of the pandemic have been an exercise in hoping for the best – and doing everything possible to shield students from a breakdown of routine. Klepper is the supervisor for the Northwest Education Services Creekside School – formerly the New Campus School – which serves students from throughout North Ed’s five-county region who require “specialist services.”

“[Students] come to us when they are demonstrating unsafe behaviors in their local school,” Klepper tells The Ticker. “So, they're impacted by their disabilities to begin with, to stay emotionally regulated and to demonstrate safe behavior, whether that’s in a school setting, on the bus, or in the community. And then what we know about our students is that any change in routine, any additional stress – at home, or at school, or anywhere in the world – it does impact our students to a greater degree. They just don’t have the tools, like self-talk or regulation, to work through these [unexpected stressors].”

Luckily, beyond the lengthy state-mandated school closures of spring 2020, Creekside has been able to keep things relatively stable for students.

 “We really tried not to close at all,” Klepper explains. “In fact, when a lot of other schools went to virtual learning, we've been open. Since the fall of 2020, we haven't really had extended closures. We've had a day or two, right? We've had a few rolling closures of classrooms, to quarantine. But that is the only reason we've closed.”

TCAPS hasn’t been nearly as lucky, in part because of scale. Creekside has about 70 students and 25-28 staff. TCAPS, in comparison, has approximately 10,000 students. When the district closes, in other words, most classrooms serving students with disabilities close, too. Brooke Laurent, executive director of special education for TCAPS, says virtual learning has proven to be a surprisingly effective for allowing accessible education teachers to “build those important consistencies” for their students. Still, she notes that some classrooms have had to remain in-person throughout the pandemic, even when the rest of the district has shut down. 

“We have kept some of our groups that are most at risk face-to-face,” Laurent says. “There were times [TCAPS] went remote, but we had our mild and cognitively impaired programs – and we have four of those across the district – that we did bring in person, because we know the impact of virtual [on those students] and we try to mitigate that as much as possible. We’ve had those kinds of considerations over time, and we’ve tried to determine how best to support our students and what those needs look like.”

Navigating COVID closures is one thing, but what about staff shortages? While Klepper acknowledges that keeping Creekside’s “small and tight-knit” team healthy hasn’t always been easy, the school has at least been spared from staff resignations, early retirements, and other turnover trends that might have exacerbated shortages. 

“We haven't had – knock on wood – any staff who have made other decisions for employment during this time; they've all kind of buckled down,” Klepper says. “Speaking candidly, the people who work in this building don't get paid enough to start with. They are getting kicked, and hit, and spit on, and their hair pulled, and they're helping kids with toileting needs, and all of this stuff. So just by nature of who they are, [our staff] are here because they're wanting to make a positive impact on kids. And that characteristic has carried through these crazy COVID times. They are still strong in their belief that they can make a positive impact with kids, despite the extra stress of the work environment, and despite the extra concern about their own physical health.”

Still, staff illnesses have created gaps here and there – sometimes taking out as much as a quarter of Creekside’s team. When that’s happened, Klepper says the school has had to get strategic about keeping its classrooms running, in part because Creekside students don’t always respond well to unfamiliar substitute teachers.

“We know when substitutes come into our building, it doesn't go well,” she says. “Because our kids don't know them, and don't have the coping strategies or the communication strategies to say, ‘You're new in the building and you make me uncomfortable.’ Instead, it turns into physical escalation or verbal confrontation. So, we've just had to think critically about how we support our school. For example, when we have subs in the building, we have them be in the office answering phones, kind of like a fill-in secretary. We put them in a position where they wouldn't have a direct impact on the kids. And then we put the secretaries into the classroom, because the kids know them. That’s a way we've been able to stabilize the school experience for our kids, by keeping as much as we can familiar.”

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