Learning during the pandemic

How Perkins uses distance education and innovative strategies to support children and families

A man and woman stand behind a table during curbside pickup and wave.

Curbside pickup, led here by Education Director Pat McCall and Physical Therapist Lori McCall, gave parents a safe way to obtain learning materials for their children.

June 24, 2020

When the Perkins campus closed for students and staff in March, few anticipated that campus would stay empty for the rest of the school year. But, thanks to your support, Perkins was ready: Our staff quickly adjusted to tackle the unique challenge of educating children with blindness or visual impairments from afar.

Teachers and students met for class on Zoom and organized academic assignments in Google Classroom. Virtual meetings replaced in-person interaction, and creative staff members hosted weekly dance parties on Zoom and even coordinated a virtual prom. Despite the challenges, our staff remained committed to the education and nurturing of all our students. Here’s a glimpse of Perkins community life during the pandemic.

Curbside pickup kicks off distance learning

To do their best distance learning, students were in need of supplemental materials to complete their assignments, like iPads that read aloud and slant boards that position books for students to read. So Lower School and Secondary teachers and staff responded by gathering these materials for individual students — plus sanitizing and labeling them — and then offered curbside pickup for the items on campus, with everyone wearing precautionary gloves and masks. Perkins teachers and staff spent hours on campus assembling these packages, willing to go the extra mile to get important learning materials to families and children. They also hosted a second pickup in late April for additional materials and any items left behind in classrooms. 

A mother sitting with her daughter in her lap on a Zoom screen.

Virtual visits support Infant-Toddler Program families

Even before the pandemic forced people to stay in their homes, Teri Turgeon, Director of Community Programs, was an advocate for conducting virtual home visits in the Infant-Toddler Program. Not only do these virtual visits allow more flexibility for families, but they also cut down on the time and costs of driving, allowing teachers to work with more children in need of support. Plus, they can be as effective as face-to-face interactions. So after launching a successful pilot program in June 2019, they were ready to bring that program to scale in March 2020 — right when children and families would need it most. And it worked. During the coronavirus shutdown, the 550 families served by the Infant-Toddler Program received two virtual visits per month, either by phone or video, and access to parent support groups online. The remote services were received so well by families, in fact, that Turgeon remains committed to exploring them as an option for families even after social distancing rules are lifted. “It’s an opportunity to support children and families and also think about how we are going to grow out of this,” she says. “Perkins has to continue being a leader.” 

A series of rectangles depicting a Zoom session shows several Perkins students on a video call together.

Perkins psychologists were there to provide families with emotional support

On top of the academic support Perkins has been providing families and children throughout the coronavirus crisis, we have also been there as an emotional resource. School psychologists sent home materials giving parents and caretakers tips for fostering emotional skill building in their children, whether they are verbal, nonverbal or have limited communication skills. They also sent home “social stories,” short guides for talking to children with different cognitive abilities about what was going on in language and terms they could understand — especially important because many students were confused about why they were being kept home and worried they were alone in having their routines upended. “We wanted parents to know, yes, we’re always here for your children, but we’re also here for you,” says Alessia Guerriero, a school psychologist in the Secondary Program. 

Deafblind Program teachers help parents become at-home educators

Learning through touch is essential for students who are deafblind, so distance learning brought additional challenges for the Deafblind Program. Perkins teachers partnered with families to help them become educators themselves, and families rallied together to support each other in the new endeavor.

“There have been continual communications and support for the academics, but the social check-ins mean just as much to us right now,” says Heidi, whose daughter Hannah meets with fellow student Andrew every week over Zoom to do a craft, like creating a paper flag or spring rabbit. An occupational therapist plans the activity in advance to grow specific skills and promote communication between the two students. Andrew’s mother, Minnie, says, “Everyone has been so supportive and willing to think outside the box. Having Andrew actively participate with others through a screen and be happy about it is a true success. It makes me smile when he looks forward to his craft group.” 

Social distancing? More like distant socializing!

Perkins also provided a digital space for teenagers with visual impairment to connect, whether they attend Perkins or other local schools. Courses previously offered in person were swapped for a series of virtual hangouts. Mondays were for skill building, with a focus on things that can be easily done at home, like cooking and folding laundry. Tuesdays were for trivia, game and movie nights. Fitness Warrior Wednesdays were all about wellbeing, as participants exercised and did yoga. And on Thursdays, kids were encouraged to call into Perkins’ radio station to host segments on sports, weather and other topics. “We have a strong community,” says Pat Ryan, who oversees Outreach courses. “We wanted to bring them together, to add some fun, inspiration and normalcy to their lives.”

Library lends more than books during crisis

On the last day before temporarily closing, the Perkins Library team leapt into action and shipped more than 4,000 braille books and digital cartridges to thousands of borrowers. And the team didn’t stop there. Led by Kim Charlson, Executive Director, library staff contacted every registered patron in Watertown and nearby Lexington to help connect them to resources and support services — in a few cases, they even helped arrange grocery deliveries.

Then, once the library officially closed, the staff turned to supporting Perkins teachers from home. Some teachers, unable to provide braille class materials to their students without help, emailed worksheets, quizzes, short stories and other class materials to the library team. The library staff converted the files with special software, embossed them into braille and mailed the finished products, along with teacher instructions, to the students’ homes, notifying teachers via email when the assignment had gone out.  

The pandemic caused this school year to look different than anyone planned, but Perkins students keep learning and growing and that will continue no matter what the future holds. Using our newfound insights into distance education, Perkins will look to empower both children and families to learn at home and to reach even more families who could benefit from our services. 

Perkins-trained educators the world over rise to the occasion 

All around the world, graduates of the Perkins International Educational Leadership Program responded to the pandemic as our teachers at home did: they found new ways of educating and empowering their students and communities. 

Derya Uyar, from Turkey, created a short storybook about the importance of good hygiene to help parents conduct reading lessons at home and also show proper handwashing techniques. In Egypt, Amal Ezzat put together a video demonstrating how parents can use tactile symbols to explain to their children who are deafblind what’s going on in the world and why their school is closed. And Jigna Joshi, of India, led a group of mothers to sew protective masks and distribute them throughout their communities. 

These are just some of the stories from Perkins since the coronavirus pandemic began impacting everyone’s lives. And while each is different, they all show how, with your support, we are able to continue the work of helping children, families and whole communities who need us.

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