By Megan Kelley
Lake Orion Community School’s Director of Special Education, Julie Gutman joined the LOCS Board of Education during their March 24 meeting to give updates on the program’s operations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the beginning of the pandemic, when school districts were forced to close in March 2020, Lake Orion’s special education program, including the Pine Tree Center, were also closed.
“It was quite a different thing for us because with special education we do so much in person. So right away, for everyone in the state we had to quickly figure out what to do,” Gutman said.
Throughout the rest of the school year, the special education program adopted a similar structure to that of other schools in the district, operating over Zoom in small groups or one-on-one.
To help ease the transition, paraeducators made short videos for the students to view on their own.
“The paraeducators jumped in and started creating many videos of just even what’s happening in their home,” said Gutman. “It really was providing a really nice thing for the students at home because so many of the paraeducators are part of their lives, so it was nice for them to interact that way.”
Gutman was also able to secure a grant through Oakland Schools that allowed them to create care packages consisting of school supplies for students to use at home.
“We purchased a lot of programs because it was just all about, ‘How can we suddenly do our services remotely?’” Gutman said. “Our goal was really all about how can we help parents become the teachers.”
The program also held a number of drive-through birthday parades and virtual IEP meetings.
Over the summer, when it came time for planning, Gutman welcomed conversations of possible alternatives to educating in the upcoming school year.
“I invited anyone that wanted to come and talk about maybe alternate ways of doing things because remote was a lot. It was a lot for everyone, but it really was a lot for staff because of the students that they service and the one-on-one that they have to do, especially the speech therapists. It was a lot of hours on Zoom,” said Gutman. “I had so many people that ended up showing up.”
During the second week of the school year, the department started putting together new programs.
“From Sept. 14 to Oct. 23, all of our categoricals came to school every day in-person,” Gutman said. “We also looked at our elementaries and we targeted our students that were several years behind and we created an LRC clinic at Orion Oaks.”
The LRC clinic consisted of half-day in-person sessions 3-4 days a week where an educator would pre-teach the students their general education content as well as provided the student’s individualized services. The same kind of clinic was also provided to middle-level students.
The department sought to locate which areas students needed help in, especially at the high school level. Some students benefited from the clinic, while others just needed a quiet and structured space to learn.
“Throughout this whole thing, the key is that special education is so individualized so it wasn’t something we did for all. We really targeted and looked individually at each student,” said Gutman.
The Pine Tree Center and categorical programs returned to school five days a week on Oct. 26 through Nov. 24.
After winter break, the students again were attending school five days a week and the LRC clinic at Orion Oaks was able to be held for each student at their “home buildings.”
While elementary students were still only attending school for four-and-a-half hours each day, the special education program was able to keep their students in school for the full school day and receive extra support.
Communication with parents was also a big factor in providing the necessary help for their students.
“Through this whole thing, I did a survey with our parents because I felt that throughout this whole thing, we were in constant communication with a lot of our parents, and if we found out that they were struggling at home — since September we had paraeducators that we actually put into homes to help,” Gutman said.
“We had some students that were medically fragile that we actually provided their service in the home through a paraeducator. We also had parents that were struggling becoming that teacher because that’s a different role, so we would send paraeducators into the home. It might be a short time, but just to set up that schooling at home if need be.”
Throughout the year, Gutman surveyed parents about the program.
“We surveyed our parents and 86 percent of our parents were satisfied with our collaboration. We had over 80 percent who thought that they made progress. Seventy percent want us to continue with the virtual meetings, so we’re going to do that. And then 87 percent of the parents felt that the special education staff communicated well and responded to all questions and concerns, and 86 percent of our parents felt that the special education staff were creative and knowledgeable about addressing the needs of their child,” Gutman said.
Gutman attributes the program’s success in the past year to a number of things, especially the staff.
“It really was a true partnership and I’m really proud of the Lake Orion special education staff because I feel that we really individualized, we thought out of the box and we addressed the needs at a time when there was no manual, there was nothing that we could look through. We really just got together in the summer and started planning, looking at each student, what could we do,” Gutman said. “I can’t stress enough, every time we would add something, I had a teacher calling me saying ‘let’s do this now’ it was never ‘we’re doing enough, let’s just do what everyone else is doing’.”
Gutman and her staff has consistently been a highlight in Lake Orion Schools and a program that other neighboring districts seek to emulate.
“When we first got going, I had another surrounding district call me and say to me ‘okay, what are you doing because all of my parents are talking about what is Lake Orion doing?’ and so they quickly had to start doing some of the things that we were doing. So, it was just pretty amazing that our staff started the trend,” Gutman said.