One morning this spring, occupational therapist Emily Nunes slowly walked Brayden Garcia through an art project using crayons, scissors, and glue.
The session, meant to help the 6-year-old master daily skills, would normally be very hands-on. But Nunes was teaching via Zoom, and it was Brayden’s mother, Navisha Garcia, who helped him draw flowers on construction paper, cut green paper to look like grass, and glue the grass and flowers together, murmuring encouragement as they worked.
Many parents have had to become their children’s teachers as well as full-time caregivers since the pandemic began. But those whose kids need intensive specialized therapies, like Garcia, have had to assume even more daunting responsibilities at home, becoming hands-on assistants to their children’s therapists via Zoom. Some have learned to stretch and strengthen their children’s muscles; others have had to figure out how to use special equipment or devices to help their kids practice hard-won fine motor or language skills.
“It’s like talking a surgeon through surgery,” said Katelyn Champine, head of the Schwartz School in Dartmouth for children with severe disabilities, where Brayden is a student.
It’s a lot of pressure on parents like Garcia; Brayden started walking last September, and his mother knows it’s up to her to make sure he keeps practicing.
“I was nervous he wasn’t going to progress as much,” Garcia said. “I’m not a therapist, I’m not a teacher. Am I going to be able to live up to what they’re doing and get him to the next step?”
Since most of the Schwartz School’s 34 students need help accessing the computer and completing assignments, families have played a huge role in their children’s virtual education. The school’s staff has created individualized schedules for therapy sessions and group classes for each of their 34 students to accommodate the schedules of the students’ caretakers, who may be working from home, or have other children to attend to. Teachers and therapists provide parents with painstaking virtual guidance.
For those students who have to put in extraordinary effort to master daily skills, consistency is essential, and timing is crucial.
“If you miss these developmental windows, it’s exponentially harder to play catch-up,” said Michael Cancilliere, executive director of educational network Meeting Street’s Massachusetts programs, including the Schwartz School.
Brayden’s physical therapist models exercises with her own daughter, Garcia said. Lately her son has been working on stepping on and off a stool, and doing full sit-ups.
In speech therapy, Garcia helps Brayden use a device with prerecorded messages; outside of class, she helps him use pictures to answer reading comprehension questions.
Such intensive parental involvement in remote education can amount to something like a full-time job. Rebecca Baker helps her 8-year-old son Colton, who also attends the Schwartz School, with weekly physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and vision therapy meetings on Zoom.
“We’ve been working really hard on his therapies, because this is the first time since he was 6 weeks old that he has gone more than a week without [in-person] therapy,” Baker said. “I’m so afraid he will have some regressions.”
Before Colton’s speech therapy lessons, Baker checks Google Classroom to see what the therapist has planned for the session. She will preload his communication device with phrases that are related to the story they’ll be reading.
To work toward the goal of having Colton walk independently, his mom makes sure he spends at least an hour each day in his “stander,” and spends time with a gait trainer, which supports him while he walks. She checks in each week with his physical therapist to ask questions and receive tips about how to aid his progress.
Recently, Baker has guided her son through a “full kneel” position, where he must kneel with an upright torso. She talked with Colton’s physical therapist over Zoom to make sure she and Colton were executing the move correctly. The next step will be a “half kneel,” where one of Colton’s feet will be planted on the ground in front of him as if he is ready to step up to a standing position.
“It’s not a sit-back time and have a cup of tea,” Baker said. “We’re doing the work, but they are guiding us.”
Like other parents, many mothers and fathers of kids in specialized therapies have had to juggle remote learning with 24/7 child care and working from home over the last few months. And in some cases, getting children to cooperate can be extremely challenging, despite the urgency of maintaining their skills.
“Parents may have a difficult time with a child with autism who may have behavioral issues, and may be more defiant at home,” said Allison Doherty, who teaches special education at Fenway High School. “Your kids are different with you than they are at school.”
For low-income families with strained resources, keeping up with regular lessons can be even more difficult. One of Doherty’s students was living in a shelter at the beginning of remote learning, and initially had trouble connecting to the Internet before the school sent them a hot spot. Due to communication trouble, another two students did not receive a Chromebook right away.
Despite its challenges, though, remote learning has given many parents a more nuanced sense of their children’s needs and abilities, said Cancilliere, of Meeting Street.
“Parents are getting a better understanding of their child’s education, which we know will only help as the years go on,” he said.
Despite the intensity of the work, Garcia has welcomed the ability to watch Brayden’s learning firsthand. Before the pandemic, she’d grown used to merely hearing about her son’s progress from his teachers. Now, she’s part of it.
“I’m able to actually see how he does, and I’m able to know more,” she said. “It’s been an eye-opener.”