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Mavericks Making a Difference: Special Education Teacher Jessica Pino Educates Preschool-aged Children and Their Families Amid COVID-19

Mavericks making a difference

For Jessica Pino '15, M.S. '16, the best part of her day is the 30 minutes every morning when she sees all eight of her preschool students. She greets the children, and then reads them a story, shows a video, sings a song or gives one-step directions (a skill they are all working on). This might seem like a normal way to begin the school day, except for the fact that the entire meeting happens over a video call.

Pino is the head teacher in an 8:1:2 classroom, which means there are eight students, one teacher, and two assistant teachers. Her students are children with disabilities who are considered pre-listener or pre-speaker, which means they have difficulty following directions independently and are predominantly non-vocal.

Like every other school in New York State, the Fred S. Keller School — the preschool in Yonkers, NY where Pino teaches — closed its doors in March due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation. Now, instead of spending full days with her students, Pino sees them on screen for 30 minutes per day. She spends the rest of her time supporting her students’ parents by meeting individually with each family, creating and sharing instructional materials and answering parents’ questions throughout the day.

As everyone learns to navigate distance learning, Pino says that her students are the ones motivating her to keep going: “I get up every day to help my students adjust to the new changes and challenges they face day to day due to what is going on in the world. They don’t understand why things are changing and what is happening.”

In August, Pino will earn a graduate-level certificate in applied behavior analysis (BCBA) from Mercy College. The techniques she is learning will help her increase students’ meaningful behaviors and reduce those that are harmful or that interfere with learning.

As head teacher, it is Pino’s responsibility to review each student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), develop an instructional “program” — or plan — to meet his or her annual goals and assess progress across the school year. She explains that much of the teachers’ work in the classroom aims to build on students’ existing listening or speaking skills to help them attend and respond to the teachers’ voices or faces. The teachers try to use the least amount of prompting possible for each student to help them become more independent.

However, this work looks much different currently given that Pino’s only interactions with her students since March have been through computer screens. Now, parents must do most of the modeling and reinforcement that she and her assistant teachers would usually do. Pino sends parents plans she develops, along with all kinds of supplementary materials, and guides them to understand how to support their children.

There is limited official guidance about how schools, teachers and service providers should adjust special education during the COVID-19 school closures. Christine Lang Ph.D. — the chair of Mercy’s Department of Special Education within the School of Education who teaches some of the courses Pino is taking as part of the BCBA certificate program — explained that special education legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not specifically address a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic in which schools are closed for an extended period of time.

However, a fact sheet sent out in March by the U.S. Department of Education underscored that schools are required to provide services for students with disabilities during this period and that they must provide equal access for all students to any educational opportunities offered. As Lang explained, “School districts seem to be implementing this guidance in different ways.”

Even though she has seen some bright spots with distance learning, Pino is eager to return to the classroom: “I really miss my students — seeing the smiles on their faces, playing with them, giving them hugs. I’m finding it really hard to adjust to this new world, even though I understand what is going on. So I can only imagine how my students are feeling. Their whole world has turned upside down.”

Though no one knows yet when and how schools will reopen, it is clear that students are lucky to have dedicated and attentive educators like Pino working to make their school days effective and meaningful — and professors and experienced educators like Lang equipping those teachers with the skills and knowledge they need to be at their best.

Mercy is a strong community and by working together we will make our community even stronger. If you are a Maverick making a difference, or you know of one, let us know at PR@mercy.edu.

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