Since teachers from Bedford Public School’s SAIL (Students Achieving Independent Learning) program have returned to in-person learning in July they’ve had one main goal: continuing to provide the necessary support and instruction to students with educational needs related to an autism spectrum disorder and related disabilities.
For almost four months during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, teachers were daunted with the task of keeping students who have autism and related disabilities engaged online, as they tried to adapt to the country’s new normal.
Marianne Vines, Director of Special Education for the Bedford schools, said it was “really difficult” figuring out how to provide these students with a proper education online.
“It actually was really heartbreaking, because parents and students need the support and we just weren’t able to provide it. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to — we just couldn’t,” she said.
According to Vines, SAIL is a specialized program designed to provide educational, behavioral, and emotional support to students with autism and related disabilities using “the most appropriate methodologies.”
SAIL is composed of two programs, one that’s “sub-separate” and one that’s “inclusive.” The sub-separate program caters to students with more intensive needs and learning usually takes place in one self-contained classroom for the day. The inclusive program assigns a specially trained teacher to each student for support, but learning takes place in both small group and general education settings.
The sub-separate program serves about 20 students from grades K-5, while the inclusive program serves about 45 students from grades K-12.
Vines said some students in the sub-separate program require one-on-one work with a therapist for most of the day, while others can be integrated into a general education setting. She said students in the inclusive program are able to access the same curriculum as most of their peers but require more social and educational support.
In addition to in-school support, the SAIL program also offers home services such as parent training and student interaction that Vines says is “critical to prevent the loss of regression.” These home support services were put on pause along with in-person learning in March of 2020.
Hannah D’Alessandro, a SAIL sub-separate teacher at the Lane School, said the challenges her students faced during the pandemic are “almost too numerous to list,” but claims the biggest was “the immediate loss of consistency.”
“All of my students thrive in a predictable, structured environment with consistent routines, constant supervision and instruction, and meaningful opportunities to engage socially with peers and staff throughout the day,” D’Alessandro said.
With that consistency being taken away from them in a span of less than 24 hours, many students were confused and struggled to understand what the severity of the pandemic meant for them, she said. D’Alessandro credits her students with being able to adapt and recognize that the world around them is different now, but wonders to what extent they understand the changes.
Rachel Orlovsky, a SAIL inclusive teacher at the Lane School, said her students struggled most with the loss of connections and social opportunities because “their disability directly impacts their social skills and social-emotional development.”
Since most of Orlovsky’s students rely on a natural setting to develop and practice these social skills, virtual learning — and even teaching with masks — is difficult. “For students who are not inherently able to read body language, facial expressions, and social cues, the pandemic has created even more barriers,” she said.
“We quickly tried to do the best we can,” Vines said, but also admitted that it is difficult to engage those with more intensive needs on a computer screen. “As soon as the governor said we could go back into homes, we had our staff back into homes immediately.”
Vines said home support includes parent training and direct service for students. “It’s kind of like an extension of their current program that they get within the school day.” A board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) oversees the at-home as well as the in-school programs. An applied behavior analysis therapist works directly under a BCBA at home, she explained.
According to Vines, students in both SAIL programs were the first allowed back for in-person learning, beginning four days a week in July. Since the school year started in September, students in the sub-separate program attend five days of in-person classes a week, while those in the inclusive program attend four.
“There were certainly some students that regressed,” Vines said, “But I do think that the fact we were able to bring our students back so quickly as opposed to other districts … [helped us] remediate that regression right away.”
D’Alessandro agreed. “Any skills that were lost were quickly regained and each student has made academic and social progress on top of any regression that might have happened,” she said.
Orlovsky said she’s “incredibly proud” of her students. “I think their ability to demonstrate flexibility and resilience in the face of a pandemic that closed school and changed everything about their day-to-day lives and routines was really impressive,” she said.
Since inclusion is an important part of learning for these students, Vines said the main goal of the SAIL program is to become available in all neighborhood schools so students can be educated in a “lesser restrictive environment.”
This is a goal that could soon be attained, as the SAIL program has been budgeted to expand to John Glenn Middle School next year.
“Continuing to fund the program as students get older ensures that Bedford is providing access and opportunity for these students to reach their greatest potential socially and academically,” Orlovsky said.
Expanding the program to the middle school would allow students to nurture friendships and connections with people they know, “rather than having to go to an out-of-district school in another neighborhood where they wouldn’t be familiar with the surroundings or the people,” said Vines.
The SAIL program was initially designed by Vines because she noticed that many students with autism and related disabilities were placed out of district because there wasn’t a local program to accommodate their needs.
“It is a wonderful thing to be able to keep all students in their home communities,” D’Alessandro said. “Part of our goal for our students as they get older is to acclimate them to the Bedford community.”
By attending out-of-district programs, students are deprived of friendships, social experiences, and local connections that are useful after graduation when applying to jobs. “Now they’re 22. They’re coming back to Bedford, they don’t know Bedford, they don’t have connections in Bedford,” Vines said as she stressed the importance of having job coaches and work experience in the town students call home.
“If Bedford is where they live, then those opportunities should be available to them in Bedford,” D’Alessandro concluded.