Nicola Priddle discusses the challenges faced during the pandemic when teaching learners with special educational needs.
Langside School is a specialist school based in Poole and operated by Dorset’s disability charity, Diverse Abilities. The school supports more than 25 pupils aged two to 19 with multiple and profound physical and learning difficulties, as well as complex medical and physical needs.
Meeting needs in lockdown
Some of our staff and many of our pupils were notified to shield during the first lockdown due to their or a member of their household’s medical conditions. Like most schools, we were in a position where we needed to provide a school environment to meet the needs of those pupils who remained at school, while also supporting families with their children’s learning, for those required to stay at home.
In order to safely meet these needs of the children at school and to ensure the safety of staff, we created bubbles and teams of people working together to minimise contacts, however, it was increasingly difficult to source sufficient PPE and hand sanitiser. The cost of medical grade masks was astronomical.
We used our private parents’ Facebook Group and emails to regularly update families, and in addition we published a fortnightly themed newsletter with suggested sensory activities, information, and guidance from the multi-disciplinary team. We also created our own YouTube channel with songs and stories uploaded by staff members for our families to use at home, so our pupils were able to hear our voices, see our faces, and enjoy the familiarity.
Class teachers called families at home twice a week to find out how they were getting on, if they needed anything, or if they required any further information about an element of their child’s learning. The teachers would also co-ordinate with the multi-disciplinary team to deliver equipment or support for the families as necessary.
We became very adept at using video conferencing very quickly, and we were then able to use this to have meetings with families and other professionals to ensure the needs of all pupils were being met.
The financial and emotional costs of PPE Initially, there was little information given to education settings about how we would be able to return a number of our pupils who require regular Aerosol Generating Procedures (AGPs) such as suction. Over time, we were able to piece together guidance published for different settings and were able to safely return those pupils in September, with staff wearing enhanced PPE, including FFP3 masks, visors, and scrubs. Obtaining slots for staff to be fit tested for these masks was tricky at times, and some were required to travel more than 20 miles for appointments.
While PPE is a wonderful barrier to prevent the spread of the virus, it is a devastating barrier to the development and wellbeing of our pupils as they are unable to see our whole faces or receive the touch and closeness they would normally feel. It is also very costly, we are seeing an increased spend of £2,500 per month on PPE alone.
Limited space in school has made social distancing incredibly hard, while there are usually a maximum of seven children in a class, the number of adults we need to keep them safe means we are all working in close proximity to one another. PPE reduces this risk, but it was still worrying for staff and for the families of our pupils.
Following the initial return to school, we were able to phase the return of more pupils in the summer term, and eventually welcomed everyone back in the autumn term.
We have seen some pupils less engaged with adult interaction, and displaying reduced facial gazing, both of which could be a consequence of wearing masks. Some pupils try to remove our masks to see our faces when we are working closely with them. The physical barrier of gloves and aprons also impacts the changes in the way positive touch, for example tactile signing and massage, is delivered and experienced by our pupils.
Returning to normal slowly
One positive to come from this, is that we have seen a massive reduction in the transmissions of the viruses we would normally have experienced over the winter months and the number of chest infections and hospital admissions has also been positively affected.
As we have similar settings to those in hospitals, we have thankfully been able to vaccinate our staff to further minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Being able to give a child the cuddle they are requesting and to relax in physical play together now and knowing there is not such a need to worry about close contact spreading the virus through parts of us not covered by gloves and aprons has brought a great sense of relief to our day to day processes.
While the people and families we support will be anxious about what the future holds, and the return to normal will be at a slower pace than most, we are looking forward to giving those with tremendous difficulty communicating the ability to see our faces again, and receive physical contact without barriers.
Those all-important routines will continue to be disrupted over the coming months as we progress towards the end of the pandemic, but we are all safe in the knowledge as SEN practitioners that we are all doing our utmost to ensure it is as trouble-free as possible for the children and young people we are supporting every day.