For most of us, it’s been seven months of asking “What’s next?”
But for United Cerebral Palsy Central California, it’s been seven months of transition.
It’s true that none of us could imagine that, for the most part, UCPCC would still be closed to in-person services at its sites in Fresno and Kings counties so that our disabled students – both young and old – could remain safe, sheltering in place in their homes.
UCPCC staff have been working steadily to reimagine what day program services will look like for the foreseeable future.
Kelly Cunningham, director of adult program services at UCPCC, says her staff has put together a program that includes everything from learning packets to Zoom sessions and even rides to doctors’ appointments.
UCPCC is “providing mobile classroom opportunities, delivering snack supplies – posting videos on how to make the snack - … birthday bus and so much more,” Cunningham says.
Cunningham and her staff have separated themselves into “pods” to keep staff numbers at a safe, socially distanced standard and with student safety in mind. There are eight pods, and each pod has a leader. The pods combine their efforts to make sure students get the best out of the services UCPCC is providing through distance learning.
“They have all done a great job and continue to be creative and try to find new things to do,” Cunningham says of her staff. “We are adding a few ‘pod’ competitions to help inspire them to do more.”
In a “normal” setting, UCPCC staff aligns curriculum to meet individualized student goals. But in the midst of the pandemic, even goal-setting has had to shift in some regards, Cunningham says.
“If we can figure out something that will work to help us meet one [goal] we will do it, but we are focused on quality of life and connecting with our families,” Cunningham explains.
CHILDREN’S PROGRAM SHIFTS, TOO
Debbie Gibson, UCPCC’s director of children’s programs, says their shift to remote services were geared to engage young students while helping families who oftentimes have multiple children in the household all at once while schools were forced to close.
“We started by providing activity baskets for all families,” Gibson says. “These baskets included Play-Doh, age-appropriate scissors …”
At the beginning, Gibson says her staff coordinated with the Central Valley Regional Center to distribute diapers to families in need. They also went through their storage and distributed toys to families.
With the help of Scott Spencer, UCPCC director of facilities and IT services, office manager Sarah Ramos was able to set up a digital note system for children’s program teachers to use to make interactions with families in a distance-learning format much simpler.
“This was one of the best innovations to come out of the COVID challenge,” Gibson says. “Our teachers write their contact notes using their laptop or cellphone. This was a dream of ours that came to fruition because of necessity.
“In September, we started providing monthly books along with weekly art activities,” Gibson adds. “Our Parent and Me teachers have been innovative in their remote sessions. One teacher had chicks hatch and that became a theme with the chicks growing right before the camera.”
The children’s program staff have even started videotaping circle time for teachers to use for the end of their sessions with students.
“One of our greatest challenges is to provide families with comprehensive services when the family is under so much stress themselves,” Gibson says. “Many families are balancing work, older children’s distance learning and health maintenance. Our teachers are doing an amazing job in staying connected to the families they serve.”
Easily the biggest shift for children’s program staff was moving to curriculums that were technology-based, Gibson says.
“We had to learn technology on the ‘fly,’ as well as implement program design and changes to accommodate remote learning,” Gibson explains. “All these changes happened so fast – it was scary! In the face of fear, they [staff] practiced hope.”
Gibson says even in a remote-learning environment, UCPCC staff have been keeping on top of parental goals and outcomes that are part of a student’s individualized family service plan through individually tailored curriculum that addresses desired outcomes.
“All of our teachers and support staff have done an amazing job adjusting to and embracing the challenges of COVID,” Gibson says. “Without caring and mission-driven staff, services would not be successful. I cannot emphasize how proud I am of our children’s program staff.”
WHEN STUDENTS ARE AWAY: FACILITY MAINTENANCE
It’s not just UCPCC’s programs that have gone through some alterations.
Without students on our campuses, UCPCC has used the time to make some upgrades and consolidate locations.
Executive Director Roger Slingerman says the Hanford and Armona Parent & Me programs have joined to form one site.
“The one we closed was under lease and it is now on the market for rent/lease,” Slingerman says.
Slingerman says renovations of the kitchen and floors at the Arts and Technology Center in Fresno are complete. Staff also have completed painting projects around the building and organized the basement area.
UCPCC has focused funds on making needed upgrades to technology, as well.
“We have upgraded much of our technology for students to be able to attend Zoom and [Microsoft] Teams meetings,” he says. “[We] spent funds on technology upgrades and services that have been beneficial to the students and our staff doing work with them.”
STUDENTS, FAMILIES REACT TO CHANGES
Kale West, whose daughter, Lori Ann, is enrolled in UCPCC’s adult programs, says the shift to remote learning has been exactly what his daughter needs.
“What you guys are doing is keeping her going,” West says. “She would get depressed without the contact.
West says she enjoys completing the work in the educational packets that are delivered weekly, and the socially distanced home visits have been essential to maintaining the consistency Lori Ann, 50, needs in her life.
“Lori just celebrated her 50th birthday … and the [UCPCC birthday party] van showed up … it was the most exciting thing for her,” West says. “I think it’s incredible what you guys have been doing during all of this.”
Francisco, a student at Fresno’s Arts and Technology Center, has spent the time away during the pandemic honing his art skills on his own, using techniques he learned at UCPC.
He says he’s eager to be back at the center where he can interact with his friends and staff again.
“Distance learning is going good,” he says, “but it’s a little bit different than being there in person. But it’s OK for now.”
Adult programs’ Cunningham says students and their families have been receptive to the shift in how services are provided, even if it’s bittersweet.
“We are hearing good things, but … this is very hard on families, and I know they want us to reopen,” Cunningham explains, adding that services have been so well-received that UCPCC has even gotten referrals for new students to attend.
All of us at UCPCC agree that this pandemic would be so much easier to get through if our students were around because they bring so much enthusiasm and joy to our lives.
“The biggest challenge has been the separation we feel from our student base,” Cunningham says. “Everything we do is always centered around them and their care. Now, we are tasked with providing a different type of care and it has required a large shift in our thought process.”
One way Cunningham’s staff has been able to keep students connected with each other is through letter writing.
“Students are writing letters back and forth, and we are delivering them to the staff and students who should get them,” Cunningham says. “It’s been a hit.”